BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Victoria Arendt heard whispers about an uncle who died young, but never knew his story until years after her grandmother had died.
“I found letters from the insane asylum,” Arendt said. “The letters were filled with arrogant messages and dismissive statements. Reading those, I could feel my grandmother screaming at the top of her lungs, and no one was listening. I knew I had to do something.”
The result is Broken Pencils, a novel based on her grandmother’s story, summarized on the back of the book:
“In 1934, Ruth, a young housewife, gives birth to a severely handicapped son. Whispers of disgrace and shame swirl in the community as she desperately tries to teach him to be normal. Her embarrassed husband is unsupportive, and her mother pressures her to place him into the insane asylum. Fearful for his safety, she resists their demands and cares for him at home.”
A Perrysburg native, Arendt now lives in Florida. She was in town last week to discuss her book while visiting with Aggie Alt, owner of The Old House, a vintage store in Waterville, that is selling the book. Arendt will be at Old House signing books on Sunday, July 4 from noon to 2:00 p.m.
“I like to support independent, little businesses – they have to work harder,” she said. “And it fits my vibe.”
For four years, Arendt researched the history of insane asylums in the United States and particularly the one located at the corner of Detroit and Arlington avenues in Toledo. Built in 1888, it was also called the Hospital for the Insane and Toledo State Hospital before it was torn down. An aerial footprint is still visible on Google Maps.
Arendt also spoke with relatives and read a 1946 Life Magazine article documenting mistreatments, assaults and massive underfunding of the asylum system.
“I have to believe my grandmother read that article and decided to fight to keep her son from being placed there,” Arendt said.
As the boy grows and the family expands, feeding, bathing and changing him becomes more difficult. At 16, her son’s strength is that of a man and she loses the battle to care for him.
“Here’s this beautiful, wonderful woman who goes through this horrible experience. It taught me to forgive,” Arendt said.
As an historical fiction novel, the book reflects through several characters what Arendt imagines a mother might experience while living in her Polish neighborhood and going up against bureaucracy. Broken Pencils, which is also available online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon, is being considered for a movie.
“It would be wonderful to see this filmed in Toledo,” Alt said.
The process of writing a novel was a challenge for Arendt, who graduated from college with a degree in business and economics, then worked for decades in business.
“I come from a very artistic family, but I went into corporate America because I thought I should have a real job,” she said. “When I had the chance to switch careers, art presented itself many times, but I pushed it aside.”
Then, in 2011, Arendt left her job and joined the art world, starting with painting. Her first works were stiff, painted with the thought of what would be marketable.
“Whatever I do, I want to be present – not doing what will sell,” she said.
Many of her oil paintings do well in Europe, as she has a German art dealer as her representative.
Arendt took a year off to teach herself to write the novel while living in Montenegro. When finished, she painted a series of almost disturbing portraits of people, which helped her shed the heaviness of the project she had just completed.
In the process of research, she discovered the topic for her next book: the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite strike of 1934.
It was the midst of the Depression and nearly 80 percent of Toledoans were unemployed. The Auto-Lite workers endured grisly conditions, with unfair production quotas and paltry wages. Exposed hydraulic press machines stamped out metal shapes and the punch press operators often lost fingers. A strike was called and, despite so many people in need of jobs, thousands of other unemployed people joined the line to keep out those trying to go into the factory. The National Guard was called in.
“It was one of the top three strikes in the United States,” Arendt said.
The book is expected to come out in early winter.
For more information, visit www.victoriaarendt.com.