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Wednesday, February 13,2013

Born of fire

Local author conjures up historical fiction based on real Lansing tragedy

by Bill Castanier
Ghosts, UFOs and other unexplained happenings provide fodder for plenty of spooky mystery novels, but author Barbara Darling Saxena said the central plot for her debut thriller, “Souviens,” came to her one night after doing some genealogical research at the Library of Michigan.

Saxena was looking for an obituary in the state archives when she came across the front-page article on the horrific Hotel Kern fire of Dec. 11, 1934. The early morning fire swept through the wood frame hotel on the 100 block of Grand Avenue in downtown Lansing (an historic marker designates the location), catching most of the 215 guests unaware until the fire alarm sounded. 

As flames licked the side of the building, hotel guests scrambled to get out. Thirty-four people died, with many of them jumping to their deaths. Reports at the time said some guests jumped into the freezing Grand River, although this was never substantiated. Eight guests were saved when they jumped into nets held by firemen.

Seven of those who died were Michigan legislators in town for a special session. The Hotel Kern was a popular gathering place serving coffee all night long and, according to newspaper accounts, had “a rollicking bar scene.”

Heroic firefighters, one working with a broken back after he was struck by a falling body, helped save the majority of the guests. But when the wreckage was cleared, five victims of the fire were unidentified and buried in a single plot at a local cemetery. 

Saxena, 52, said “Souviens” creates a fictionalized account of one of these victims. That’s where the story begins and, in some ways, ends. In between, Saxena has created a masterful story in her debut self-published work, which alternates chapters between her modern-day protagonist, Dr. Dakota Graham — who suffers from terrible lifelike dreams of a fire — and the beautiful, young  Grace, who has dreams of becoming a doctor.

The author said that after she came across the story of the fire and learned of the unidentified victims, she started to write the story in her head.

“Between the time I laid my head down and fell asleep, the story came to me,” she said. 

As the plot alternates between Graham and Grace, who is making her way in Lansing in the 1930s, readers learn there may be a connection across time between the two protagonists. As Graham pursues the reason for her strange dreams, she confronts what Saxena calls “ancestral dreams,” or visions that have been passed down across generations. Saxena says that she made that medical characteristic up, but she goes to great lengths in the book to convince the reader it does exist.

She also infuses the thriller with specific detail about local Lansing sites, people and things, both historical and contemporary. So when an unexpected guest talks his way into her modern protagonist’s office with a pizza, naturally it’s from DeLuca’s. Likewise, a 1930s Michigan State College Junior Hop dance, held at the former downtown Lansing Masonic Temple, is described.

Saxena likes to get her facts straight, and when historical accounts of the J-Hop didn’t reveal the exact date of the event, she relentlessly pursued that piece of information, finally locating it at the MSU Archives. 

The author also describes the complex relationships and mores women faced in the 1930s through Grace, who works as a bank clerk so she can go back to medical school to become a doctor.

Souviens, the name of a medical research organization led by a creepy researcher in the novel, is also central to the plot, along with upset suitors, deceptions and double deceptions. A pivotal scene involves Grace´s being called to the reading of a stranger’s will, where she learns she is a major beneficiary. (It really gets ugly after that.)

I’s a complex plot with numerous switchbacks (perhaps one too many), but Saxena keeps you guessing until the absolute end. She has taken a common feeling of déjà vu and made it into an engaging medical thriller that crosses historical timelines.

Saxena, who was born and raised in Lansing and graduated from Waverly High School, places the characters in “Souviens” in many authentic mid-Michigan settings and captures with precision the medical and scientific aspects of this complex novel. She works as a family practice physician in Grand Ledge , and has degrees in electrical engineering and a doctorate of medicine from MSU. 

She said she has incorporated actual landmarks, businesses, cultural events, and collegiate facts into the novel to help illustrate what she calls “the rich tapestry of mid-Michigan life.”  The author said she is an avid mystery reader and was inspired by authors such as Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries. 

“Souviens” will appeal to both fans of medical thrillers and historical mysteries, Graham is propelled into increasingly dangerous circumstances as she uncovers the cause of the terrible dreams she’s having and the reason for the burning sensation on the top of her hand.

Although Saxena said she wrote the book because it was on her “bucket list of things to do,” she said she had so much fun writing it that another one is on her list now.

Historical Society of Greater Lansing
Guest Speaker

Featuring author Barbara Darling Saxena
7 p.m.
Feb. 21
Capital Area District Library, Downtown
FREE

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