Research Notes · 12/02/2011

The Last Repatriate

We’re pleased to present the first post in a new series here at Necessary Fiction: Research Notes, in which authors describe their research for a recent book — with “research” defined as broadly as they like. Getting things started, Matthew Salesses writes about his novella The Last Repatriate, recently launched by Nouvella Books. Print copies went quickly, and I hope you’re among the lucky readers who snapped one up. But not to worry if you aren’t, because The Last Repatriate is also available as an ebook.


Where Do Fiction Stories Come From?

It may be a situation, or it may be an incident; or it may be a character. It may be something far more vague — the quality of someone’s laughter, the smell of eucalyptus trees in the fog, the sound of foghorns talking amongst themselves… something happens, and the feeling, the caring, is suddenly there, and you have your beginning, your starting place, and then, only then, you can go to work. / I wish I knew why.
— Richard Martin Stern, “Where Do Fiction Stories Come From?”

Five years ago, I visited the Richard Martin Stern Collection, part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, for a course I was taking at Emerson College. I was supposed to write an essay and a creative piece based on archival research, and the Stern Collection was the one of two search results for “Korean” in all of the archives of Boston. Richard Martin Stern, it turned out, was a mystery novelist in the mid- to late twentieth century. Not exactly what I was looking for.

But though I had no chance of finding what I’d wanted — records of a Korean in the Korean War — I did find someone in Stern’s life interesting enough that I would invest my memory and history, and the memory and history of the archive, in him.

Corporal Edward Dickenson ended up being the subject of my novella, The Last Repatriate, as well as a screenplay and short story. He did a lot for me (Thanks, Ed!). In 1953, Dickenson was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on charges of collaborating with the enemy. He’d been captured near the beginning of the Korean war and marched north to a POW camp on the border of Manchuria. 3 years passed. At the end of the war, he was one of 23 non-repatriates refused to return to America.

By Stern’s accounts, this was an embarrassment to the U.S. and they did everything they could to change the non-repatriates’ minds. Dickenson was the first to return. He was treated as a hero, used an example of the happy times that awaited the others. The Army had been given three months to complete the exchange. Dickenson was a hero for much of that time. Then, near the end, he was arrested.

The letters I found in the Stern Collection didn’t mention exactly what Dickenson did in the POW camp, but Stern made him out to be caught between two systems far bigger than him. Basically, the Cold War. Did that mean the Chinese had forced Corporal Dickenson to talk about his regiment, and then he was convicted for giving this information? Did that mean he was innocent? Did that mean he felt innocent? These were questions I was left to wonder about.

The more I uncovered, the more I got into the case — the research, for me, was much like a good mystery novel. One of the folders held official legal documents, which contained details I noted greedily: “He tried to escape a number of times and was caught, before almost succeeding on July 25, 1952.” “He was given a 30-day leave and honeymoon before he was accused.” I could sense the stories beneath these statements, where the motives lay. But the real find was the galleys of an article Stern had written entitled, “The Crucifixion of Corporal Dickenson.” That was when Dickenson emerged for me, through the sympathy Stern brought to him.

Stern received notes from the editor of the publication to make Dickenson more of a character, and I soon learned that Dickenson had gotten a Dear John letter early in the war; that after his nearly successful escape attempt, he’d been “broken and brainwashed” by Chinese interrogators; that when he got back to Virginia, he married a girl he hardly knew. Just before his status changed forever. Story stuff.

I spent the rest of the day taking what interested me and leaving the rest. And when I was done, I had more than enough to start telling Dickenson’s story.