Milwaukee Novelist Imagines the Trail of Tears, by David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express, January 20, 2023.
The Trail of Tears wasn’t taught in U.S. schools—at least until recently. Neither has the role in that death march by that man on the $20 bill, President Andrew Jackson, been recognized widely enough. Inspired by his Jewish heritage with its memories of the Holocaust, Milwaukee author Kenneth M. Kapp reexamines the Trail of Tears in an imaginative—let’s call it magical realist—work of fiction. “Why write about something you know when it’s more exciting to write about something you don’t know,” Kapp says. “When I get curious about something, like the Trail of Tears, I can’t let go.” Johnny’s Trail of Tears is set in the past, but not in the 1830s when Jackson ordered the ethnic cleansing of Cherokees and other nations from their ancestral lands in the American southeast, marching them with little sustenance to the bleak frontier that is now Oklahoma. Kapp’s novel begins in 1948 when his teenage protagonist, Johnny, runs away from his troubled home in southern Illinois and makes for the West Coast, San Francisco specifically. He’s dressed in army fatigues from the surplus store, sold by a Jewish peddler who recurs through the story. Perhaps he’s one of the 36 Righteous People of Jewish lore whose intercessions and interventions prevent the world from fragmenting into utter chaos? Knowing nothing of the Trail of Tears, Johnny’s hitchhike to California is diverted and his journey snakes back to the original Cherokee homeland and around many sites along the Trail, including the appropriately named stockade where the Natives were held, Fort Payne, Alabama. The ghosts of indigenous people follow Johnny and haunt the American culture of his time. He reconstructs an Indian Pony, a popular make of motorcycle during the ‘40s, as his mount for part of his journey. Working as if in alliance with the Jewish peddler are Native American “Sentinels,” mystical figures who, as Kapp puts it, “move things along.” Johnny’s Trail of Tears is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel that reflects on the specters of America’s past. Kapp will discuss his novel 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26 at Lion’s Tooth, 2421 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee, WI.
Kapp will discuss his novel 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26 at Lion’s Tooth, 2421 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee, WI.
Milwaukee Author Kenneth Kapp Opens a Window into Family and the Power of Memory by Blaine Schultz, Shepherd Express, October 12, 2021 With Mr. Samuelson Remembers, Kenneth Kapp deals with memory, family and the challenges both present. Stanley Samuelson met his wife, Mary, while attending a series of Bach cantatas in New York City. They moved back to Ohio to raise a family and build a home. Health issues are at the heart of the story, but also how the Samuelson’s children and grandchildren face the responsibilities of caring for those who raised them. The story also includes the roles of the housekeepers who have decades-long ties with the family. The stress and friction of how the Samuelson’s son and daughter deal with their parents’ declining health is presented in ways many readers can relate to. With the onset of dementia, Stanley’s caretakers find themselves focusing on the kind of details that the former accountant once took for granted. Kapp’s imaginative storytelling device is the use of Bach’s cantatas: how the concerts infused the start of the relationship and how the children and grandchildren use the music as a window into the Samuelson’s history. The music also serves as a portal into the fading of Stanley’s memories after his wife passes on. At times he adapts the German translations to fit his own life story. A Second Career as Novelist The teenage Ken Kapp wanted to be a mate on a fishing boat. His career path eventually led him to a mathematics professorship at the University of Wisconsin as well as a stretch of over two decades at IBM. Retirement offered the opportunity to focus on writing. Kapp recently spoke about the book and what makes him tick. The Samuelsons, their kids, grandkids and housekeepers seem to face challenges and loss in different ways.
My mother-in-law suffered from dementia. It was one of the hardest things I ever witnessed. I felt I had to write about it to share and lessen the burden. I try to be observant and sometimes events or scenes from different places can be recast effectively in a story. I got lucky with the Bach. I grew up with the theme music for the “Masterwork Hour,” the oldest classical radio program in NYC —“Sleepers Awake.” I love Bach and actually heard the New York Pro-Musica perform in the Cloisters. I listened yet again and again to the cantatas in the story—my rough translations easily adopted by the Samuelson’s and remembered by Stanley. Other incidences and people were adapted as needed and then I have an active imagination; it helps. And I could relate personally to the drama unfolding. Do you start with a story and then write the chapters or do you let the characters tell the story as you develop them? Sometimes a little of both. But I need to be curious. And it always works best if I end up just recording what I’m seeing—the characters moving forward on their own—me in the catbird seat. Let’s start with short stories. Take James Joyce’s epiphany. You have a realization about something. And you start sketching like an artist. If the picture starts to look interesting (and maybe doable—not a 1000-page epic) I continue. If not, oh well. Turn the page and start another sketch. Or, I have an idea … “wonder if or isn’t that nice.” And now of course, can I make it interesting for someone else? Or I want to have fun? Just write words in order to laugh? I also like to let my “back-brain” do a lot of the working. Wake up with those “what if’s” and ruminate on them while walking the dog. I’m a poor typist so I try to do a lot of ruminating. Novels are a more involved. Sometimes I come back to the same theme in a couple of sketches and realize they’re connected. Or the epiphany is more involved and demands to be expanded. And the words just pile up—sometimes approaching that 1000-page “no-no book.” How much time to do spend each day/session on getting the words down? Do you edit as you go or circle back later? I try to write most evenings when everyone is in bed. So, I get perhaps two hours. a night between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., five nights a week. Sometimes I get a couple of quiet hours during the day during the week. I’m an Orthodox Jew and so don’t work on the Sabbath. But don’t forget the back-brain or the doggy walks. And yup … I hate to admit it, but the stories get churned thru many, many times and then some more. And then I send it off to my editor—a professional with a good eye and a better ear for the right word. I got lucky when I found him. My first efforts came back with more red than black on the page. Usually less red ink now but maybe he’s given up?
A 'Slow and Painful Awakening’ WWII novel explores a German soldier’s homecoming By Jenni Herrick Feb. 16, 2016 Shepherd Express Milwaukee, WI
We are all keenly familiar with timeless stories of decorated soldiers who returned from World War II, and many of us likely have family members who fought in these historic battles. We don’t often think from the perspective of returning German soldiers, however. In Kenneth Kapp’s novel The Slow and Painful Awakening of Herr Wilhelm Neimann, we follow the protagonist as he returns from the Eastern Front in 1944 and struggles to reintegrate into a small village in southwestern Germany. As he battles his old wounds and tortured buried memories, he also works as a teacher where he encounters students who believe that the local crematoria is infecting the villagers with the genes of perished Jews. Wilhelm fights valiantly against his inner demons, guilt-riddled conscious and painful past at the same time that he yearns for acceptance by his new community. The Slow and Painful Awakening of Herr Wilhelm Neimann is a compelling tragedy told with historical accuracy through the eyes of honest characters.