FORT LORAMIE — Dennis Turner, of Dayton, sat down to write his first novel and knew exactly where his protagonist would be from: Fort Loramie.
The Fort Loramie Historical Society will present a talk by Turner, April 15 at 2 p.m., in Fort Loramie High School Room 310, 575 Greenback Road, Fort Loramie. Admission is free.
Turner’s book, “What Did You Do in the War, Sister? How Catholic Nuns in Belgium Defied and Deceived the Nazis in World War Two.” is based on true events and recounts the story of an order of nuns who were trapped in Belgium during the war.
“I wanted a sister with a bit of an edge,” the retired attorney and University of Dayton professor told the Sidney Daily News when asked why his fictional Sister Christina was a Fort Loramie native. “You want some characteristics that fit with a young woman raised on a farm. They’re going to be strong, smart in a practical way, not easily intimidated, self-confident. She would know how to raise crops and livestock and do chores. They’re going to be tough and able to handle deprivation, (they’d be) who you would want to have your back in a situation like (the German) occupation (of Belgium).”
He gave his Sister Christina three brothers and said she was “Catholic but not too Catholic, not dogmatic about it.” That makes her someone not afraid to bend the rules when desperate situations call for it.
Turner’s father grew up on a farm near Fort Loramie, and he has cousins who live there, still. Sister Christina is a composite of several of those cousins. She belongs to a fictional order, the Sisters of Our Lady. Turner based his tale on letters written by real nuns, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Their story came to light when Sister Kim Dalgarn, archivist for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and a personal friend of Turner and his wife, found letters and journals in the back of a filing cabinet in Cincinnati.
“They were written by sisters … who were living in Nazi-occupied Belgium and Italy during World War II,” Turner said. “Here were gripping stories waiting to be told.”
Although he had written law review articles, newspaper columns and a trial skills book, composing fiction was something he knew little about. But he was familiar with historical novels by Alan Eckert and especially liked “Freedom” by William Safire. Both authors used actual events and real people as their books’ foundations and then imagined their conversations. Turner decided to do the same.
“It cut me loose. It freed me up. I call it ‘creative nonfiction,’” he said. He was careful, however, to include endnotes listing what was historical fact and what was made up.
Turner completed extensive research before he set pen to paper, figuratively speaking. He even traveled to Belgium. But, he said, he task of researching was not difficult.
“Google and the Internet has made everything so much easier,” he noted. He also admitted that a lot of information fell into his lap. The letters provided by Sister Kim were a start. He also found much of what he needed in a book by former Belgian diplomat Jean-Michel Veranneman, “Belgium in the Second World War.”
“Another book that deserves special mention is ‘Hidden Children of the Holocaust’ by Suzanne Vromen. It provided a thorough and insightful description of what life was like for Jewish children being hidden in Catholic convents,” Turner said.
During his visit to Belgium, “there were amazing coincidences,” he added.
He went to the Notre Dame de Namur convent and happened to meet a man putting something into a mailbox there. The man’s grandfather had rebuilt the convent’s orotorio after the war, and the man had photos.
“I incorporated his grandfather’s story into the book,” Turner said.
Closer to home, he mentioned the book during a Lifelong Learning class about law that he was teaching at the University of Dayton, a book about nuns who hid children in Belgium.
“A man in the front row (of the class) said, ‘I was one of those children.’ I incorporated his story in the book,” Turner said.
In another instance, a friend of a friend introduced him to a Yellow Springs woman who had lived in occupied Belgium during the war. That woman put him in touch with her sisters, whom he interviewed during his visit in Belgium.
“They gave me so much information about what it was like to live under occupation,” he said. Their tales are in Turner’s book, too.
It took him about a year and a half to write the novel and then the editing process began. He self-published it because, he said, at age 70, he didn’t want to wait for “hundreds” of mainstream publishers to reject it before one said yes.
“In essence, this is a book about good people doing brave things at a very dangerous time in our history. Three themes run through the book’s narrative: 1. In time of war even the most rigorous rules, like those of a strict religious order, have to give way to more practical concerns. 2. Sisters spend their entire adult lives adhering to their vows of obedience in everything they do. Sister Superior’s orders are considered the same as if they emanated directly from God. Now, during the War, those same sisters are suddenly thrown into roles in which they are forced to make life and death decisions for themselves and others. 3. The skills and discipline a sister acquires in becoming a nun are also useful for becoming a spy,” Turner said.
It has garnered praise from clerics and other authors.
“Dennis Turner has written a book inspired by sisters of Notre Dame who, with holy delight, foiled the Nazis. It is a wonderful recounting of the deeds of marvelous nuns living in the midst of mortal danger,” wrote the Rev. James Heft, Alton Brooks professor of religion at the University of Southern California and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies.
“A powerful story of seldom-sung heroines in humanity’s darkest days and a vivid reminder of the power of conscience,” wrote author Edgardo David Holzman.
Jim Rosengarten, director of the Fort Loramie Museum, said he invited Turner to speak because the book sounded interesting.
“I thought we’d help him get the word out about the book. (His talk) will give people who are interested in that period a chance to meet him,” Rosengarten said.
Turner will have copies available to purchase and will sign books following his talk. Credit cards, cash and checks will be accepted. Soft cover copies cost $20. Hardbound copies cost $25.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.