Strangers Before the Bench: A Historical Novel
By David Hecker, Ph.D.
Crab Walk Press, Bainbridge Island, Washington, 2014 288 pages, softcover.
Strangers Before the Bench is a historical novel that demonstrates the value of studying family lineage. Importantly, this type of inquiry leads to many discoveries about family: family trees are constructed, secrets are revealed, many relatives are located, and most importantly, the impact of historical events on family become evident. Beyond these values, another benefit becomes apparent in this novel. Immigration law comes into question in this book. George Schwartz, a judge in the Immigration Naturalization Service in the Seattle District during the 1990's, experiences a change of heart and advances from being a "fences-up" judge who will deport any immigrant brought before his court for the slightest of reasons to a judge who sympathizes with petitioners and aids them in their efforts to become citizens of the United States.
What causes his change of heart? George Schwartz was born in Mandan, North Dakota, the son of descendants of Germans from Russia, and receives his education in Mandan schools and his university education, including a law degree, at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. Because of circumstances detailed in the book, George doesn't know the history of his lineage in South Russia during the Nineteenth Century, thus he serves as judge to immigrants who have experiences of similar circumstances in their home countries to what George's own ancestors had survived. George Schwartz changes because he visits an uncle in Oregon who explains his family history and gives him names and addresses of living relatives in Munich, Germany. During the same time period as his visit to his uncle, he is challenged by a Seattle P.I. reporter about his rulings in court. The relationship with the reporter blossoms into a romantic attachment. George begins to question his attitudes towards immigrants and decides to travel to Munich where he gets firsthand information from relatives who lived in South Russia under Stalin's collectivization era and World War II. They are forced to flee to Germany, but get caught by the Soviet Army in eastern Germany and are deported to forest work camps in the Ural Mountains of Siberia. Later in 1972 they are allowed to leave the Soviet Union and are accepted as citizens in Germany.
George returns to the Seattle Immigration Courts and decides to do something about the 1996 Immigration reform law that was passed by Congress which forces immigrants into confinement for life in holding tanks. The law also places them in double jeopardy. Part one of the work is about George's visit to Munich, Germany and parts two and three are about his courtroom decisions and the confrontations he has with other judges, prosecutors, and the court administrator. There are also sub-plots in the book that show other conflicts about ethnic affiliation in America. All told the book illustrates the importance of digging into family history.
About the author
David Hecker earned a Ph.D. in American history and American literature, subjects he taught to college students for a number of years. He has published works in various formats, including academic essays, book reviews, travel logs, a memoir, and poetry. Hecker lives with Helen, his wife, on an island in the Puget Sound of Washington State. They have two children and three grandchildren who live nearby.
David Hecker is author of Full Circle: A Journey in Search of Roots.