Copyright © 2022 John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
Author Uses Another Route
to Write About His Hometown History
Whenever one of John Dandola's mystery novels debuts, he gets questions about why his local hometown history books are no longer available. As explained countless times, this stems from the fact that in Dandola's hometown of West Orange, New Jersey, his research is intentionally uncredited and his histories are out-and-out plagiarized. Professionals simply do not tolerate such things.
Dandola's credentials and achievements as an historian, biographer, screenwriter, and playwright are easily verifiable. He is also the author of sixteen and counting mystery novels in two different series. In one series, set during the 1940's, he presents West Orange as it once was. In the second series, based in the present-day with mysteries originating in the past, he often calls upon his own experiences in working with local history. Such is the set-up for his upcoming mystery novel, A Varying Wind (debuting in the spring of 2023) wherein a discovery causes friction between a local historical society and Native Americans.
"Local history is important to each and every place," Dandola explains. "But what is rarely admitted is that local history is finite. A new discovery is hardly ever happened upon. The most common problem with local historians and local historical societies is that they all claim to preside over things so extra special that they manufacture rationales and jump to irrational conclusions. It drives legitimate researchers crazy going down nonsensical rabbit holes for no reason at all."
Dandola has been at the business of history for most of his life. As a child in his hometown of West Orange, New Jersey, he learned about local history from the town's first historian—a family friend. He took up the mantle upon the passing of that historian even though he kept a much lower profile than his predecessor.
As the behind-the-scenes authority, the West Orange Public Library's Reference Department always turned to him with history questions; even going so far as to calling him "Mr. West Orange"—a title which is still recalled by several longtime librarians. Dandola can pinpoint when, during the 1990's, the town history became politicized. It was when a mayor at that time began using invented lies as reasons to proceed with town projects. It has continued ever since.
"I'm an inveterate truth-teller and, as such, I don't exaggerate," Dandola explains. "But truth-telling has caused me to be ostracized by town politicians. To me, history is independent of current-day political whims. Imagine politicians trying to whitewash verifiable facts from a century ago to fit their agendas. I just don't get that. The reality is infinitely more interesting than their invented lies."
Dandola is recognized by state libraries not only as a town historian but as the historian of the town's fire, police, and recreation departments. He has written books on all those subjects. Books, which because of his writing style and credentials have won readers nationally and even internationally. Unfortunately, the current politically-appointed town historian is simply not of the same caliber.
"I'm a trained researcher and a proven author," Dandola says. "He's a former plumber. Make up your own joke. The proof is that the portrait he paints of the town is far from accurate but the politicians love it because he does their bidding. And he, in turn, loves to have his picture taken with the politicians."
Has Dandola come across such dishonesty elsewhere?
Coincidentally, he explains, the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange has, for decades upon decades, made a practice of rudely dismissing every story about Thomas Edison ever offered by local people who knew or worked for Edison—his factory employed half the citizenry. As a result of shear snobbery, the historic site lost almost all information about Edison's personal life in town.
"Now, they just make up things," Dandola explains. "I got that directly from an archivist at the historic site. It was years ago, when he asked me to identify people in photos they had on file. We had a long conversation about it. Even he realized that almost all the local stories had to contain a nugget of truth but it took a local to decipher things and put them in context. He was appalled that the historic site willfully chose not to do so."
How could a national historic site not be bothered to accurately research what it represents?
"Because they have no use for any local knowledge. There are relatively few national historic sites where people actually knew the person being celebrated. From the outset, the feds didn't know how to deal with local people who actually knew Edison so they treated those people as bumpkins."
Besides a photo which the site passes off as "Thomas Edison with schoolboys from Orange" and is actually a photo of Edison posing with the factory messenger boys (Dandola's grandfather is among them), three incidents immediately spring to Dandola's mind:
"They rely on newspaper coverage of the 1940 World Premiere of M.G.M.'s Edison, the Man which was held in West Orange. Unfortunately, most of the newspaper coverage is more gossip than accuracy. What's more, they don't seem to realize that the first reconstruction of Edison's Black Mariah movie studio, was done for that premiere."
The premiere is thoroughly detailed in Dandola's Dead at the Box Office. He had access to M.G.M. memos and he interviewed actual participants.
"They claim that Edison's private fire department fought bravely to save his factory in a horrific 1914 fire. In fact, the opposite is true. It was the ineptitude of Edison's private fire department which caused the fire to get entirely out of control. I know because I've seen the actual handwritten West Orange Fire Department logs and follow-up reports. To do proper research, the historic site never bothered to venture outside its gates or look beyond the tips of their noses."
The Edison fire is detailed in Dandola's Dead in Their Sights.
"They also don't know where in town the chase scene in The Great Train Robbery was filmed. They use a 1926 source which is third-hand so, of course, it's incorrect. I know the proper location and I even know from whom the horses were rented."
The location of The Great Train Robbery chase gets mentioned in Dandola's upcoming Dead During Intermission (due later this winter).
"If I don't include such information in writing, the fleshing out of Edison's personal life in town will end with me. I didn't want that but I just got tired of fighting to set things straight. Including such facts in my novels is my workaround."
While Dandola's Wind series of mystery novels addresses history elsewhere in the nation, his Dead series focuses on his hometown. Readers discover the town's colonial beginnings; daily life with Thomas Edison and his family; the town's connection to New Jersey gangster, "Longy" Zwillman; municipal ties to Golden Age Hollywood; and even the solving of the town's nineteenth-century cold case murder.
"Couching facts within fiction often makes them easier to grasp," Dandola says. "It certainly lends a much more humanizing element."
It also makes his work much more difficult to be plagiarized.
Photo by Eduardo Olszewski on Unsplash