Lincolnshire author's novel mixes history, law
by RONNIE WACHTER
Deerfield Review, Pioneer Press, July 8, 2010
When he and his wife were raising their eight children, Ron Balson would write his own fantasy stories to tell them at bedtime, tales of magic and goblins.
The longtime Lincolnshire resident has a new story, but this one is a tale of lawyers and war criminals -- and instead of using his children for an audience, one of his sons is its publisher.
Balson is the author of Once We Were Brothers, a historical fiction novel about a small town in Word War II-era Poland and two boys who survived the conflict, only to battle each other in court 60 years later in Chicago. A product of his son Matthew's publishing imprint, the novel came out in March and, with only writer and printer as publicists, is beginning to gather positive reviews and attention.
"A lot of your heart goes into a book," Balson said. "There's a lot of my professional history in there."
Balson's profession is in the same courts his characters find themselves in, as he is a trial lawyer and a partner in a downtown Chicago law firm. He said that, in a sense, he has already made a career in writing.
"Lawyers don't do anything but write really," he said. "Most of our work doesn't take place in a courtroom, it takes place at a typewriter, or a computer.
"If the jury doesn't understand your case as a story, then they're not going to follow your case."
It was one of his cases that gave him the idea for Brothers, he said.
In 2002, a Chicago firm hired him to represent it in a lawsuit against a competitor regarding mutual quests to control telephone service in southern Poland. The case sent him to the former Communist country multiple times in the next four years, where he interviewed witnesses, studied documents -- and took in the beauty of a nation emerging from the smothering Iron Curtain.
"That country suffered worse than any other country in World War II," Balson said. "Its culture was demolished in World War II. What that war did to those people and that society, we really have no way of conceiving it.
"Warsaw was almost totally destroyed during the war, and then it was rebuilt under Soviet control," he added. "The buildings are square and gray and dark and cement.
Those edifices became markers of "the sadness that still pervades" there, he said, and became the origin of his story idea.
The "brothers" of Balson's title are two boys growing up in Zamosc (a real city Balson visited), one of whom comes to join the Nazi Party and turns into an SS executioner in his own hometown. The other immigrates to Chicago, and in 2004 becomes convinced that one of the city's leading businessmen and philanthropists is actually the war criminal with whom he grew up.
Balson started his novel immediately after the telephone case and his business in Poland were finished. It took him four years to produce the 476 pages of text, which included research in libraries and on the Internet, without taking a break from his caseload.
"It's fact-intensive," he said. "I could have attached a bibliography to it. That's maybe why it took me four years."
But it was also a new application of an old habit, he said. In addition to traditional bedtime reading, Balson said he used to make up stories for each of his kids to enjoy, and learn from.
"They were just children's stories about magical things, witches and goblins," he said. "You try to fashion it after your kids' own personalities."
He recalled in particular the tales of Harold, an extremely stubborn little boy who was always getting in trouble with teachers. Those stories were aimed at Jacob, who is now a geologist with a master's degree in Nashville.
Another son, Matthew, started his own publishing company -- Berwick Court, named after the Lincolnshire cul-de-sac on which he and his siblings grew up.
With word-of-mouth as their main advertising agent, good things are following. A Facebook user in California, whom Balson never met, started a Brothers fan club, and he received a speaking engagement at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook.
Balson said he is proud of his work: New people want to know about his tales.
"Maybe I've always been a storyteller."
Once We Were Brothers is in stock at The Book Bin, in the Northbrook Shopping Center, and can be purchased online at oncewewerebrothers.com. It can also be ordered from retail book stores and Amazon.com.