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Novel’s character is of Las Vegas, with roots in Jewish Newark
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Novel’s character is of Las Vegas, with roots in Jewish Newark

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Laura McBride at a book signing event at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair last May; both “’Round Midnight” and her previous novel, “We Are Called to Rise,” were featured. Photo courtesy Laura McBride
Laura McBride at a book signing event at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair last May; both “’Round Midnight” and her previous novel, “We Are Called to Rise,” were featured. Photo courtesy Laura McBride

Round Midnight: A Novel” by Laura McBride, published in May by Touchstone, is a tale of four strikingly different women whose lives in Las Vegas intersect over five decades in unexpected ways. 

One of the four, June Stein, left her Jewish roots in 1960s Clinton Hill, Newark. As a rebellious teenager, she married foolishly, went to Las Vegas for a divorce, and stayed. As the novel opens, she is running a casino with her non-Jewish second husband. 

The other protagonists include Honorata, a Filipino woman trafficked to the United States, who finds her way to Sin City; Coral, a teacher and Las Vegas native who is searching for her mysterious past; and Engracia, who with her son finds her way to the city from Mexico.

Decisions weigh heavily on each woman. Those made during the course of the novel, often in a split second, ripple into the others’ lives. In making these weighty decisions they rely on their ability to reach for values deeply ingrained from childhood — or to surmount them. At other times, decisions are foisted upon them.

For June, there is a quiet echo of the ideals she held onto even as she let most of her Jewish background slip away. 

McBride, speaking from her home in Las Vegas, explained how she came up with June, why her background matters, and what it’s like to take on the challenge of writing from a perspective not one’s own.

“June was the first character in the book to pop into my head. And she popped in as someone who came for a divorce, and who was Jewish,” she said. 

Of the four characters, McBride said, she was most comfortable with June. In part, that comes from what she calls the “novelist’s ear” — as she explains it, even before she begins writing, she is always “attentive” to people she can mine for her characters’ development. For example, she said, “You meet women of a certain age in Las Vegas, and you find a lot of people who came to Nevada to get a divorce and then stayed. There was a six-week residency requirement.”

And although she herself is not Jewish, her husband and children are and the family belongs to a local synagogue. McBride also travels to New Jersey frequently to visit a friend in Montclair. As for Newark, she said, “I probably Googled ‘Jewish community in the 1940s’” and came up with Clinton Hill, she said. 

June had to have a religion to help frame the novel, McBride said. “I was really thinking about how a religion in a person’s background informs who we are even when that person is not religious.”

For June, it can be remembering a photograph of herself as a child lighting Chanukah candles — “a toddler resting a fat finger on the base of a flickering menorah.” But it is not a photo that she waxes nostalgic over; rather she rejects it as among her father’s “perfect” photographs, “depictions of how she was meant to be: clean and silent and still, instead of rumpled and impetuous and inclined to pull at any stray thread.”

It also comes out in other interactions — with clergy, in scenes set inside a synagogue; but mostly, as part of an identity she carries with her.

The other characters were trickier, acknowledged McBride, particularly Honorata, who spends time during the novel in her native Philippines, and whose tone and manner set her apart from the Las Vegas culture around her. 

McBride said she wanted to go to the Philippines to do the research, “but nobody thought that was a great grand idea,” she quipped. Instead, she researched the character on-line. “I can’t even say how much time I spent on nonprofessional writing from immigrants and travelers.” She pointed out that the most authentic details sometimes come from such posting on websites, and “especially the children of immigrants writing about their parents.” She also looked through as many images of villages as she could. “I was looking for bird sounds, flowers, those little tiny details” until she could finally imagine it herself, she said.

“The scary part of creating women quite different from me and my experience is trying to get that right. I just keep working at it and working at it,” said McBride. But she does it because she likes writing about Las Vegas. “I’m really interested in trying to capture this place where I live. It’s an eclectic, diverse, interesting place.”

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