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A Personal and Literary Odyssey

En route to unearthing her father's past, an author finds a true writing community.

November 20, 2001|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The small stucco house on Harter Avenue in Culver City sits with an aura of muted self-containment. No architectural embellishment declares its presence to the street. Louise Steinman, pointing to a hedge cut square as a stone wall, speaks with the hesitance of a woman waking to her past. "That hedge was here when I grew up," she says. Of some oblong topiary bushes: "Those weren't."

She recalls attending religious school at nearby Temple Akiba, how her older brother, Larry, played in Little League. She speaks of the "ebullient," culture-loving mother who was easy to talk to and the "pragmatic, overburdened" father who wasn't. Norman Steinman earned respect as a caring neighborhood pharmacist behind the counter of his Rexall drugstore on Sepulveda Boulevard. He won deep affection as a devoted father to his four children. Yet he always seemed bound by a deadened inwardness, behind a wall that hid a range of feelings and a power to express them that his children never knew he had.

The power was language. How fully he'd dammed its flow his daughter only learned on the day in 1991, when she found more than 400 letters he'd written to her mother, Anne, while fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Both parents had recently died when Steinman found the old ammo box filled with letters. In them, her father was a different man, like a black-and-white image suddenly animated by color. On the ship taking him to war, he described his homesick longing: "I keep looking out at the blue ocean and dreaming that you're beside me, and, when the moon is out, especially then, I just keep talking to you all the time." On a jungle battlefield in the Philippines, he grasped a sense of doom with a single image of an old horse at night. "It has a bad foot, and all its ribs are showing, but it's very tame," he writes, adding (in combat slang that calls soldiers "dogfaces") that it's "a wonder some sleepy doggie doesn't open up with a machine gun."

Steinman also found a silk battle flag from a Japanese soldier who had perished on a battlefield he'd shared with her father. For 10 years, despite the skepticism of siblings, personal doubts and literary struggles, she dug into her late father's life and reached for its meaning in history. She deciphered codes between her parents and tracked down the family of the Japanese soldier to return his flag. The resulting memoir, "The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War" (Algonquin), rings with the Homeric themes of a man's difficult return from war and his child's painful search for him.

"It was really like meeting a new person," Steinman says. "When we were growing up, he really wasn't given to lyrical expression. There was this openness in the letters, this emotionalism. I was overwhelmed by them."

*

We've moved to a table set with tea at the Culver Hotel in downtown Culver City, just steps from the former MGM studios. She has chosen this spot, with studio photos from "Gone With the Wind" on the walls, to convey the sense she writes about in her book, of growing up in a town "where illusion was the home-grown product."

Steinman, in charge of cultural programming at the Los Angeles Central Library (author readings, performing arts series) and an occasional writer for The Times, lives now in Silver Lake. As she speaks about the book, a weariness dilutes her voice, for all its articulate sureness. She is just starting to digest the end of a journey that began with her search for the right form in which to tell the story, as she moved from poetry to journalism to book-length memoir. Then came years of rewriting and no fewer than 32 submissions before "The Souvenir" finally found a publisher. By all accounts, her tenacity stands out even in a book world where such marathon sufferings are common.

Along with frustrations, she found true believers. Too often, the desire for what writers and editors call "literary community" strains beyond the fact, especially when applied to the scattered, sequestered lives of the verbal whirling dervishes at work amid the valleys, hills and coastal fringes of Los Angeles. When writers here gather, they often talk about how hard a place this is to make a literary life work. Steinman's experience shows how one writer's effort became a magnet to a community of editors at very different publications--a poetry journal, an alternative weekly, a major newspaper's Sunday magazine--which nurtured her material's potential, as she tried one approach, then another.

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