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  • Writer's pictureWalker Buckalew

A Real-Life Character

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A Real-Life Character

I have already mentioned in an earlier post that the characters in my novels – adult novels and young-adult novels alike – are not based on actual people. I create characters in order to move a story in the direction I think it needs to go.

There has been one exception. In my fourth adult novel, Choose You This Day, there is a Dutch woman whom I named Greta van Dijk. Although what happens to Ms. van Dijk in this story is 100% fictional, her history is that of an actual person. And so, after I completed the story, I wrote the following “Acknowledgement and Tribute.”

Greta van Dijk’s character, while wholly fictional in this novel, is based upon the life of an actual person. Sietske Postma was a twenty-eight-year-old schoolteacher – a Christian – living in her native Ferwerd, Holland, in 1943, when a twenty-two-year-old blonde Jewish woman, Noortje Hegt, knocked on her door. For two full years the Postma family hid Noortje “in the open,” in the midst of the German occupying forces.

Sietske never allowed Noortje (who took the Christian name Franciska during her time with Sietske) to leave the house without her, risking her own life every day and every night in order to save this young woman – a complete stranger when she appeared on the Postmas’ doorstep – from the death camps. At war’s end, they learned that Noortje’s mother and sister had been murdered at Auschwitz.

More than three decades later, in July of 1976, Sietske Postma was inducted into the Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The two women, by then in their vigorous fifties (and Noortje the married mother of two children), happily turned over the earth for the planting of Sietske’s carob tree along the Avenue of the Righteous.

Since this fourth novel deals with some 1980s terrorists seeking to attack, kidnap, or murder Christian people who had saved Jewish people from the Nazi death camps during the Second World War, I felt that this real-life woman deserved to be featured in my story. And I am grateful to author and journalist Peter Hellman who wrote an amazing account of the Postmas and others who hid Jewish people during that horrific period in 20th-century history.

Further to the issue of characters based on real people, versus those created by the author without actual people in mind, I have been asked the question many times, “Who are the real-life people on whom you model your characters?” My answer is always, “I create the characters to fit the story, and, except for a woman named Greta van Dijk in Choose You This Day, my characters are not modeled on anyone.” People sometimes can’t imagine this.

For example, when I was finishing my first adult novel, The Face of the Enemy, my sister-in-law asked, “Am I in it?” I thought she was joking, so I just laughed. As it turned out, she was serious.

She was really asking whether or not any of the characters in that story were based on real people: specifically, on herself. Much later, after reading at least one of the other Rebecca novels, my sister-in-law asked if she could have another copy of The Face of the Enemy (having given hers away), saying she “ruined her brain” while reading the book the first time, trying to decide which of the characters were based on actual people in my life and hers.

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