April 21 2010 12:00 AM

Brad Leithauser looks back on 1940s Detroit



Native Detroiter Brad Leithauser has lived in Paris, Japan, Italy, England, Iceland and more than a few places in the United States, but he left his heart in the Motor City.

His most recent novel, “The Art Student’s War,” is set in World War II-era Detroit; Leithauser has woven into it stories from his parents’ lives at the time when the city was known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

“There was never any question in my mind that it had to be set in Detroit,” Leithauser said. “I’m considered the family archivist, and I threw in family stories of my father and mother and borrowed a situation from my mother-in-law to recreate my par ents’ lives.”

How this co-mingling of family history works in Leithauser’s Michigan Notable Book is unveiled in the book’s knockout opening scene, as Bea Paradiso, a beautiful young art student, catches a street car in downtown Detroit and meets a young wounded veteran who, when offered a seat, gives it up to Bea.

That chance meeting is a spinoff from Leithauser’s parents’ lives, a story they recounted of their own streetcar ride in downtown Detroit: His father, a wounded veteran on crutches, gave up his seat to his date — soon to be his spouse. Leithauser’s mother was, like Bea, a young artist who would go into veterans’ hospitals to sketch the injured. Bea follows the same path, ultimately falling in love with an art student and an injured soldier at the same time. The latter part of the book follows a post-war Bea, who settles into a mundane existence.

“World War II loomed very large in the imagination of my household,” Leithauser said. “A lot of men of (my father’s) generation found war very traumatic. All we knew was he didn’t want to talk about war. Every now and then, he would have some weird anecdote, but mostly he would say that ‘crazy Army.’”

Leithauser had previously written a poem about the streetcar encounter called “Purple Heart,” which he reworked into the opening scene.

The author did much of his research for the book in the Detroit Public Library, where he read issues of the Detroit News from the war years. He also used eBay to buy ephemera he would use to add authenticity to the book. An old Hudsons
Department Store menu, for example, provides an array of items and

“I have a 1942 Detroit transportation map on the wall of my office,” he said.

The author said he was always interested in being a writer, but after graduating from Cranbrook Kingswood School he went to Harvard, where he received his law degree. He said he wrote through law school, and remembers the week he took the state bar he had a book of poetry accepted for publication.

Leithauser remembers being adamant about not wanting to teach. He is now on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University along with his spouse, poet Mary Jo Salter.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to teach.’ That was partly the prima donna in me. and partly I thought it was better to be connected to the world. I’ve now found that (for a writer) it’s a way of arranging your life, to have a roof over your head and have time to write.”

It seems to have worked out for Leithauser who has written six novels, five collections of poetry and an essay collection.

Brad Leithauser

6 p.m. Friday, April 23

Township Library

5130 Davenport Drive, Lansing


(517) 321-4014