Background on Missing Lucile by Suzanne Berne

My father’s mother, Lucile, died when he was six and to his mind everything that ever went wrong in his life stemmed from that one terrible fact. Though oddly enough, aside from her death he didn’t seem to find his mother very interesting. The only other “facts” he knew about her, really, were that she had gone to Wellesley College in 1907 and spent a year as a relief worker in France after the First World War. But for me, his grief invested her with an awful glamour. She was the missing link in my father’s evolution—the person who might have connected him to happier life–and so from childhood on she became something of a missing link in mine.

Years passed. My father got old, then sick; we had become estranged during my twenties, and weren’t much closer now that I was in my forties. That’s how things stood until one day I discovered an old box of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother, keepsakes I’d collected from my grandfather’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve. What caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives. When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.

After I had those negatives developed, I visited the Wellesley College Archive and found that she’d been part of a Wellesley College Reconstruction Unit, assigned to ruined villages along the Marne. As a novelist, I soon began thinking, naturally, of writing a novel. About an educated Midwestern woman–a millionaire grocer’s daughter–in a shattered French village, helping the peasants rebuild their cottages, gadding about Paris, having affairs with French officers and American marines. All of which did happen to Lucile and her fellow relief workers.

As I did more research into Lucile’s life–looking into the Cincinnati of her childhood, her college years–and started telling my father what I was finding, my plans for writing a novel began to change. He was so interested, first of all, in the facts. And the woman in those photographs was so factual. Those were the muddy oxford shoes she had worn; that was her black felt hat; there she was, gazing straight at us as she stood outside a rough wooden barracks.

Slowly Lucile stepped out of ghostliness and into the outline of a particular woman who had lived a particular life. It seemed both wrong and impossible to fictionalize her, to thrust her behind yet another shadow.

Not that I “found” her, of course, in all the facts I uncovered. But the effort of looking into the worlds she’d inhabited, of coming up against the intransigence of the past, as well as its moments of transparence, became deeply exciting—for me and for my father. At the end of his life, a woman began to take shape for him. Changeable, contradictory, rooted in history, rooted in family, partly knowable, partly not. In other words, one of us.