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The Truth Behind Robert Black’s Historical Novel “Liberty Girl”

The “Real” Eleanor Blizzard

Author Robert Black is known for his math novels, both fictional and biographical, but he’s also a history buff who has written three historical novels that immerse readers into a time period very different from the one we’re living in now, giving them a true sense of how things were “way back when.”

But Black’s novels don’t just teach about history; they also show readers the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness based on multicultural friendships that develop among the characters. And yet, although they are reaching across ethnic and national boundaries to build their relationships, the protagonists in Black’s novels also feel—and demonstrate—a fierce sense of loyalty to and pride for their hometown or their country. In fact, it’s a misguided sense of that loyalty that is a source of friction for the main character of one of the novels.

Black’s novel Liberty Girl was created out of his grandmother’s memories of growing up in wartime Baltimore. Eleanor is an eleven-year-old girl whose family moves from Indianapolis so that her father can do work to help the Allies win World War I. Eleanor’s family heritage is German, and although her grandparents and parents are faithful and steadfast Americans, anti-German sentiment was so strong during the war that many people like Eleanor felt it necessary to hide any connection they might have to the country that was seen as the supreme enemy.

At one point in the story, however, Eleanor reveals that she knows a little bit of German when she tries to help a confused old man who is crying out in that language. A boy overhears her and reports her to the authorities, and suspicion about Eleanor’s loyalties follows her throughout much of the rest of the book. But Eleanor is right to be terrified:

The Justice Department attempted to prepare a list of all German aliens, counting approximately 480,000 of them, more than 4,000 of whom were imprisoned in 1917–18. The allegations included spying for Germany, or endorsing the German war effort. Thousands were forced to buy war bonds to show their loyalty. The Red Cross barred individuals with German last names from joining in fear of sabotage. One person was killed by a mob; in Collinsville, Illinois, German-born Robert Prager was dragged from jail as a suspected spy and lynched. (Wikipedia)

According to Robert Black, “During World War I, as in other wars, there was an intense public hatred of the enemy, to the point that anything even marginally associated with that enemy suffered for it. Sauerkraut was renamed ‘liberty cabbage,’ dachshunds were renamed ‘liberty dogs,’ and so on. Well, Eleanor is partially of German heritage, and she gets outed for knowing at least elementary school-level German, so she is the ‘Liberty Girl.'”

Black’s story is about far more than anti-German sentiment; it’s about friendship and sacrifice and the importance of being true to who you are no matter what is happening around you. And, as already mentioned, it is built on real memories of Black’s grandmother. In fact, Black has a fascinating array of old photos from that era, showing the “real” Eleanor and the “real” Maggie (Eleanor’s closest friend in the novel), as well as some of the other characters and scenes. Enjoy these images as supplemental material for a book that is categorized as fiction but that feels real in every way. Readers are sure to appreciate Black’s historical accuracy—and his dedication to the accuracy of emotion and sentiment that the characters embody.

The “Real” Eleanor
The “Real” Maggie
Eleanor’s “Real” Uncle Alvin
Robert E. Lee School in Baltimore
Eleanor’s Parents, the Blizzards
Eleanor at the Launch of the Arundel
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