It all started in 1978, when author Daniel Wolff was tasked with clearing out a house in Minneapolis and found a diary belonging to a middle-aged woman who was married with three kids.
The kicker? Despite this seemingly idyllic life the woman had, the diary told a completely different story.
“I’ve never been so lonely,” it read. “There’s no movement of love in me anymore.”
These feelings of loneliness and isolation found in the diary are overarching themes in Wolff’s latest non-fiction book, “How to Become an American.“
Wolff will be speaking about his novel at the Mill City Museum for a Minnesota Historical Society event on April 27. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the lecture begins at 7.
The book, which was released last December, spans about four generations and follows a Jewish immigrant family’s journey across the United States. Throughout the novel, the unnamed family travels from 1840s New York to pre-Civil War South Carolina to Reconstruction era Florida. The family’s trek ends in the Twin Cities.
“How to Become an American” is a departure from the majority of Wolff’s previous nonfiction works. Most of his other books discussed well-known figures like Sam Cooke, Ben Franklin, and Elvis Presley. In a change of pace, Wolff said he wanted to tell a story about “unknown” and “regular” people.
“I thought, ‘Well, let me try to write this book that is about someone you not only don’t know but there’s no reason you would know them or ever want to know them,’” Wolff said.
The book’s focus on loneliness in the immigrant experience is prompted by the disconnection the diary owner feels due to her family history. Despite the U.S. being known as a “nation of immigrants” according to the event’s website, she still feels isolated and like they don’t belong.
Wolff said this loneliness faced by many in the U.S. is a threat “worth exploring” in his book.
Another core part of the novel is taking apart what being an American truly means, and Wolff hopes readers join him in asking these questions and reflecting on their own lives.
Despite this goal Wolff has for the audience, he can’t help but note the irony of it all. While the title suggests otherwise, by the time Wolff finished writing the book, he wasn’t convinced that his characters had even become American themselves.
“Though they were third generation, I’m not sure they were accepted or vice versa, were accepting of the country,” Wolff said.
Writing this book was a very involved process for Wolff. The woman’s diary was the driving force behind the novel and required him to piece together many different time periods of American history to completely understand the family’s story.
During this intense writing process, Wolff noticed himself relating to several aspects of the novel. Believing that people are products of generations that came before, he said battles ancestors had and the loneliness they acquired are carried into the present day.
Wolff was born in New York and still lives there today. However, he said his roots are in the Twin Cities because his parents are from the area. He’s visited before, but he’s particularly excited to come back this time and speak about the “great” and “complicated” city that is Minneapolis at the book talk.
Ultimately, Wolff believes his novel can spark important dialogue about the country’s history with immigration, particularly Jewish immigrants, and the obstacles they faced during that time.
“It feels like part of an ongoing conversation about where America’s been and where it’s going and what it means,” Wolff said. “That’s rewarding to be part of that conversation.”