The untold secrets of a perfect family

It may seem shocking that Daniela Kuper’s mother has not read her daughter’s first novel, “Hunger and Thirst,” but, then again, she is 94.

“She is not a heavy-duty reader, anyway,” Kuper said. “Even though she did not read it, she is really proud. To her, it is like, ‘She did good, I did good.'”

Kuper, born and raised in Chicago, is the product of a strict and old-fashioned Conservative Jewish upbringing. “I had a very tough childhood, although it did not look so tough from the outside,” said Kuper, 54, who spent a lot of time as a child in her bedroom.

She idolized her second-grade best friend, who seemed to have a perfect family. But years later, her best friend bared the details of her family life, exposing an emotional wreck, pocked with alcoholism, suicide attempts and abuse.

“I always thought that my best friend from second grade had the perfect life. We are still friends today, and when she told me the truth about her childhood, I realized that it was actually a disaster.”

Jilted by this turn of events, Kuper got to thinking about the secrets everyone holds: “What if you do tell the family secrets? What if a mother left her family? What if you are not a good Jewish girl, what happens?” she pondered.

Out of Kuper’s curiosity came “Hunger and Thirst,” a story of the Trouts, a Jewish family in Chicago, circa 1950.

Irwina and Buddy Trout are desperately searching for love in a doomed marriage. Their 12-year-old daughter, Joan, is the only one who can see her parents’ fallout; she is the primary eyewitness to her mother’s straying farther and farther away from the family, and her father’s drinking problem grow increasingly worse.

But instead of trying to protect her parents, Joan realizes the only person she needs to save is herself.

“You know she has to pull her life together, and you know that there are a lot of people who will take her in and let her be as she is,” Kuper said. “Joan is capable of sheltering herself from the storm and the pain. She can make her own home; it is inside herself.”

Furthermore, it is Sofia Fitt, an eccentric vagabond, who helps make Joan’s transition to independence possible.

“Sofia Fitt came to me in a dream,” Kuper said. “She is the crazy wisdom that we all wish we understood. Sofia reminds Joan that she is not alone, that she has power, and the gifts she gives her are not just another stupid present, but a part of herself.”

Kuper ditched the Boulder, Colo., ad agency she founded in 1982 for a career in writing. Eventually she began to sell her short stories, while still accepting advertising clients on the side to pay the bills. Nine years ago she moved to Brooksville, Maine, and finally sold the manuscript that would become “Hunger and Thirst.”

“As Jews particularly, we are nomadic,” she said. “Our souls are nomadic because of our history, but the things that root us are our stories.”

Kuper knew she had to escape the world for her writing to make sense. She would disappear for six weeks to two months at a time, writing “Hunger and Thirst” in a secluded cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

“It is almost that I have to go away from the FedEx guy to get the words out,” she commented. “It is easy to write when you are hot, but when you cool down, how do you sum it up? How do you put yourself in the writer’s trance? If you don’t have discipline and craft, you will not last.

“I followed the story and the characters and was shocked where they took me,” she said. “I felt like I was writing a letter to my childhood, to my best friends. My book was an homage to them more so than to a certain kind of demographic.”

“Hunger and Thirst” is filled with no-holds-barred language that grips the reader in the chest, pulling them in to a world of painful secrets, but ultimately redemption and hope as well.

“I think the reason that it has such a compressed intensity is because I had so much time to know the characters,” Kuper added. “I always wanted to start up high on the arc of action, and never let up. You just have to split a gut and write.”

“Hunger and Thirst” by Daniela Kuper (275 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $23.95).