With the publication of her novel, “Coming To: A Midwestern Tale”, author Caren Umbarger reveals an original voice and a powerful message about gender equality. Set on the eve of the Great Depression in Mason City, Iowa, her story chronicles the burgeoning self-awareness of Lillian Scharf, who steps outside the bounds of a traditional Jewish marriage and is confronted with cataclysmic consequences. “I wanted to write a story that not only women could relate to, but also anyone who has struggled out of oppression to make a better life for themselves,” Umbarger says.
Lillian, a college educated actress and young mother, is married to Morris, a successful businessman with a formulaic and controlling approach to life that threatens to extinguish her independent spirit. The story ignites when Lillian tries out for a part in the local play and sparks fly with the director. She seeks the counsel of friends and family to help her negotiate an increasingly perilous path. When her husband’s true colors come to light in a moment of rage and physical violence, Lillian is forced to make a fundamental choice about the direction of her life.
Umbarger makes effective use of flashbacks and thematic imagery to develop the action, and provides readers with a rich understanding of the inner lives of her characters. Although Lillian’s mother has passed away, her voice remains present throughout the story: “I just have a prickle about this. Marriage is compromise, Lillian. The most important thing is that you have mutual respect. I hope he will be able to respect your wishes and desires as I know you will his. I just don’t want you to have to compromise yourself right out of business.”
Caren Umbarger was born in Mason City, Iowa on the last, cold day of 1953. She began playing the violin at age 5 and, as a child, was an active Girl Scout, an avid horseback rider, and a voracious reader of fiction. When she was nine, Caren wrote a letter to her favorite author, Marguerite Henry, which initiated a pen-pal correspondence that lasted many years. The author's kindness and intimate sharing (they both loved horses) was the first clue for Caren that authors were real and actually did exist!
She attended Bennington College in the early 70's and later, as a single mother of two young children, earned an A.A. from Lakewood Community College (White Bear Lake, MN) and a B.A., music major (violin performance) from Hamline University in St. Paul. At Bennington College, Caren took a literature class with author Lore Segal that required a paper on Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE. When she informed Ms. Segal that she couldn't possibly read that huge book and write a paper on it, Ms. Segal's response was: "I'm sorry, then, I'll have no choice but to fail you." When Caren finally turned in her paper, as evidence that she had, indeed, read the book, the teacher leapt out of her chair, clasped Caren in a bear hug and joyfully congratulated her for overcoming her reticence to produce the required work. Ms. Segal taught a great deal more than just literature.
Caren transferred to Hamline University as a junior English major, but switched to music because musi c was her livelihood; she taught more than 30 students per week in her private string studio and was a professional violinist in Minneapolis. While at Hamline, author Carol Bly's office provided a much needed sanctuary for precious down time as Caren de-stressed on her professor's comfortable couch. Another kind author, another real person behind those printed pages.
Caren had always harbored a secret desire to write a novel, so imagine her surprise and delight when she discovered that one of her adult violin students was a famous author who taught creative writing at the college level! Four months after he started lessons, Caren finally got up the nerve to tell him that she was a writer. When he asked her what she had written lately, she had to admit that it had been nearly twenty years since she had really done any creative writing, but had always dreamed of writing a novel. He coached her on some writing prompts, encouraged her zealously, and after some months went by, Caren found herself writing Lillian's story (COMING TO), and being mentored by the teacher of her dreams.
During the five years of the writing of the book, Caren and her husband, Paul, moved from Minneapolis (where she had lived for 28 years) to St. Augustine. Later, on a road trip from Maryland to Florida, Paul read aloud all the chapters from her laptop and she was astounded to realize that the book was nearly finished! With a couple more weeks of work, Caren was able to print out her first manuscript. Numerous friends read it and offered critiques and support; and her step-son, Charley, even created a beautiful, handmade edition of COMING TO.
After Caren sent the first chapter to several agents and publishers, it became apparent that she could spend years trying to get the attention of someone in the publishing business long enough for them to give the book a read. So, she chose to self-publish and print-on-demand, which allowed her to publish the book with complete creative control and minimal up-front costs. "The process of self-publishing was very much like giving birth: you know going into it that it's going to be intense; while you're in the middle of it, you can't remember why you thought you wanted to do it in the first place; and now that it's finished, all the hard work was worth it."
COMING TO is Caren Umbarger's first novel. She is currently doing research for her second book.