In two new local novels, truth wears the thin disguise of fiction
Captivity, corruption, escapes, flights in truth and fantasy, murder, messages from the dead, revenge, suicide …
The stuff of thriller fiction. But in the lives of authors Donald Shomette, Helena Mann-Melnitchenko and Eugene Melnitchenko, such events were terribly real.
Wars, internments and such tragedies can be buried in memory, but they’re not forgotten. Writing puts a frame around memories, rendering them more manageable. These authors took further artistic control of real-life events beyond their control, transforming them by imagination and artifice into fiction.
For Shomette, Murder Would Not Die
Donald Shomette opens Briar Patch: The Murder That Would Not Die with a quotation from Oscar Wilde: The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations. It’s relevant. The Murder That Would Not Die features two young women in a park and one man who used Revelation as his brand of bullet.
Writing books is an addiction for Shomette, who lives in Dunkirk. So far he has published 15 on history, most set in Maryland, Virginia and the Delmarva coast. Writer, artist, lecturer, photographer, film consultant and underwater archaeologist, he is creating charts and marking locations of historic shipwrecks for National Geographic and is working on his next book.
Yet he seldom wrote about his own life — until that dark episode from his childhood wouldn’t let go. Neither would the later suicide of an adoptive cousin. Then he turned to piecing together what scattered puzzle pieces he could find. To avoid scandal and even retribution, he labeled his account fiction, and changed names to protect the not-always innocent. “However,” he says, “the facts are real.”
Shomette was 11 on that ill-fated day in 1955 when his 17-year-old cousin, here called Ellen Chauvanne, and their 14-year-old neighbor, Mikie O’Reilly, walked to school via a wooded park on Prince George’s County’s northwestern edge.
Both were murdered in a berry patch.
Ellen’s father was a heavy-equipment operator, Mikie’s father a police officer in Washington, D.C.’s 2nd Precinct. Tight-knit groups of colleagues extended both families. Hundreds were affected by that double murder, countless others interested. The FBI, D.C. and Prince George’s County police, the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission, even U.S. Army units were mobilized, along with neighbors, to follow clues in a manhunt through many states.
Scores of suspects, many colorful, some unsavory, from ex-CIA employees to ex-cons, were held for questioning. The murder (whose motive was conjectured but unproven) influenced local politics and attracted national attention.
The press became almost as much a player as the people directly involved. The story ran on the front page of The Washington Post and other papers, and mysterious communiqués appeared among the classifieds.
Ellen’s adopted kid sister, called Terry here, grew into a beautiful, successful young woman. Yet the trauma of the murder remained. Her sister’s ghost continued to haunt her, along with disembodied voices on the telephone, all the more as a tick bite morphed into full-blown Lyme disease with its deadly effects upon muscles, nerves and brain.
Desperate to help his ailing and troubled cousin, Shomette planned to write Ellen’s story with her. Over a half-century, they amassed 5,000 pages of written documents, letters, taped interviews, legal transcripts, medical reports and clippings. Terry kept up with the work, albeit progressively ill. The true and tragic love story of a boarder who became her guardian angel is a novel within the novel inspired by Ellen’s murder and all the clues and collusions swirling around it.
“What is not real in the book,” Shomette said, “is that technically the crime remains unsolved, a cold case. But the reader knows who the perpetrator is.”
World War II’s Long Shadow
Gene and Helena Melnitchenko’s stories also began in childhood. Both lived the haphazard lives of refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation of Ukraine and at war’s end found temporary haven in Displaced Persons camps, Melnitchenko in Heidenau, Mann-Melnitckenko in Berchtesgaden.
Chapters of both Melnitchenkos’ early lives appeared as memoirs in Bay Weekly
The Girl Who Forgot Christmas (2005): http://bit.ly/k9o7sM.
As the War Ended (2005): http://bit.ly/mijA23
Remembering the Sound of a Mother’s Voice (2007): http://bit.ly/l8swzT.
Members of each family immigrated, confronting the challenges of adapting to the United States, surviving with whatever jobs they could pick up. Eventually Gene and Helena went to college and graduate school. They met at the Ukrainian church in Silver Spring while still in university, and their families became good friends long before they married in that same church, which they still attend.
But they were haunted. “The world has changed a great deal in the last 60 years, yet humankind’s inhumanity hardly at all,” Gene Melnitchenko wrote in Bay Weekly in his 2007 memoir After the War Ended. “There are lessons to be learned from history, and we, as children, witnessed many devastating events.”
Taking turns writing chapters and editing in their study in Owings, this husband and wife team collaborated first on The Road to Ukraine’s Independence, and most recently on the fictional Playing Fields.
In Playing Fields, they drew from their experiences to create believable characters in challenging situations. We first meet their male lead, Mark Savchenko, as an eight-year-old in a labor camp where his mother and grandfather are dockworkers. The family eventually reaches New York, surviving with pick-up jobs.
Parallels between author and character continue. Like Mark, Melnitchenko played and coached soccer for years. Like Melnitchenko, Mark joins the Marines. Both writer and character are more interested in philosophy and history than in pursuing wealth. Yet both worked their way from couriers who, on foot, deliver securities between banks, to full-fledged Wall Streeters.
Melnitchenko became a securities analyst and research director and served on the committee that wrote the Financial Analysts’ Federation Code of Ethics.
Playing Fields’ key female personae, Nina and Lara, echo Helena Mann-Melnitchenko. One a journalist, one a former high school teacher, both are serious, like Mann-Melnitchenko, and conclude that cultural and spiritual life trumps an acquisitive career.
The composite character Victor Novik, on the other hand, is the consummate beeznisman driven to figure all angles, some not exactly illegal but not always ethical. Yet Victor can also do good.
Again, so that the several prototypes could not recognize themselves on these pages, details were disguised. But Gene Melnitchenko’s desire to prove that “one must make the right choices, even when the situation is forced upon one” comes through loud and clear.
Elisavietta Ritchie has 16 collections of short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction in print, plus many individual pieces. Her most recent book is Cormorant Beyond the Compost. More books are in progress, and who’s to know what’s fact, what’s fiction? She leads Re-Write Your Life: Creative Memoir Writing sponsored by Calvert Library, serves as an editor and ex-president of Washington Writers’ Publishing House, is a poet-in-the-schools and is involved with several writers’ workshops.