Writing what, and where, she knows

Charlene’s Wexler’s new novel is Farewell to South Shore

ART Wexler  image

Novelist Charlene Wexler said her own goodbyes to her old neighborhood many years ago. But the memories have stayed with her, and she revisits them her latest novel, Farewell to South Shore. 

While it draws on the settings of her early life, it's not autobiographical. I would call it historical fiction. I like writing fiction," she added, "because you don't have to be exactly right." 

 

The plot covers fairly recent history. Sherrie, the protagonist, was born in 1944 to a close-knit Jewish family; when the novel begins in 1959, she is 15. As the story progresses, she lives through the Kennedy Administration, the advent of the hippie movement, and the AIDS epidemic. While Sherrie fights for, and sees the victory of, Roe v. Wade, the news of the landmark decision being overturned came as the book was being printed. 

"Farewell to South Shore taps into, and articulates, a woman's emotions in dealing with a changing society, particularly its expectations of women," Wexler explained. The story deals with homosexuality, unplanned pregnancy and abortion, family secrets, domestic abuse, divorce, single motherhood, women's rights, and middle-age romance. 

Over the course of the plot, Sherrie, the first in her family to attend college, becomes a single mother, an attorney, and an activist. While the world changes, and Sherrie changes with it, one thing stays the same: "She brings her Jewish traditions with her everywhere she goes," Wexler said. This is due to the influence of her very traditional aunt, "who fixes everything with love and food."  

While this trajectory does not exactly mirror Wexler's, the author also was a professional- she managed a dental office- before turning to writing. Farewell to South Shore is her sixth book; her seventh, its sequel, We Won't Go Back, is completed and will be published by early next year. 


 

Today, at 81, Wexler resides in Richmond, Ill, but she lived in South Shore for 20 years. Many friends from back then, she said, have read the book since its winter release, and have contacted her with mazel tovs and memories.  

One phenomenon they recalled was "the "family block" or "family building." The practice was for families to live near each other-in the same neighborhood, or even in the same apartment house. A senior patriarch set the agenda for all, saying, "This is what we are going to do." 

The title Farewell to South Shore does not only mean that the protagonist leaves the place, but that the place no longer exists as she knew it. "It's a farewell to a time and place that will never exist again," Wexler said. 

While Wexler's main source of material was her youth, the inspiration for the novel came from elsewhere: the mothering/smothering closeness of Toula's family in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the accomplishments of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  

"I write about strong women who go through a lot," she explained. These features, she does share with Sherrie. In Wexler's case, she lost her 12-year-old son to leukemia.   

"I write for myself. It's my therapy," she said. Even though, as a retiree, she could write whenever she pleases, Wexler says she prefers to write at night, sometimes until 2 a.m.  

When she starts a new novel, she explained, "I know the beginning and the end. But my characters tell me how to get there."  

Of Farewell to South Shore, Wexler said, "it's very Jewish and it's very Chicago. But all readers will identify with the theme of moving on.

Farewell to South Shore is available on Amazon and also through its publisher, Speaking Volumes.  


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