Monday, June 26, 2023

The Story Behind the Story:
“Time Will Break the World,” by Aaron Jacobs

(Editor’s note: This is the 96th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. It comes from Aaron Jacobs, who lives mostly in the Catskills with his wife, Katie, and their dog, Monty. Jacobs’s debut novel, The Abundant Life, was published in 2018. Comedian-commentator Samantha Bee called it “delightfully unique, hilarious, and acerbic.” His other writing has appeared in publications such as Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, JMWW, and The Main Street Rag. Below, he offers some background on his latest novel, a tense thriller titled Time Will Break the World, which is being released this week by Run Amok Crime.)

As far as day jobs go, there aren’t many ways of making a living less connected to the world of books and writing than mine. I sell school buses. But inspiration is a funny thing and reveals itself in unlikely places. There is an industry newsletter called School Transportation News that lands in my inbox fairly regularly. I’m not sure if I ever subscribed to it or if my e-mail address got put on a mailing list. It reports on topics such as new emissions standards, and which air-conditioning manufacturer recently filed for Chapter 11, and which giant transportation company bought or merged with another giant transportation company. It’s about as exciting as you can imagine an industry newsletter to be.

One day, while purging my inbox of newsletter junk mail, I accidentally clicked on a link that opened on the headline: “Last of Chowchilla School Bus Kidnappers Denied Parole.” The article was about a man named Frederick Woods, the mastermind of a massive crime. He’d been incarcerated for almost four decades and recently lost a chance at freedom at his 11th parole hearing. This was the first time I’d ever heard of him and what he had done, and it sent me down a rabbit hole trying to find out more.

In 1976, Woods and two brothers, Richard and James Schoenfeld, hijacked a school bus and kidnapped the 26 students on board, along with the bus driver, as part of a plan to collect $5 million in ransom from the state of California. After driving the victims around in vans for 12 hours, Woods and his co-conspirators transferred them to a moving truck that was buried in a rock quarry 100 miles from where the bus was found. To be clear: they buried the children alive and left them in a suffocating box with just a few moldy mattresses, water, and holes cut in the floor for toilets. It was only through the victims’ bravery and luck, and the assailants’ stupidity, that tragedy was averted. The students and driver managed to escape before a ransom demand was made. The Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping, as the incident became known, was the biggest kidnapping plot in American history.

This crime captured the zeitgeist for a brief moment. In the immediate aftermath, the children were taken to Disneyland and honored as heroes. Robert Goulet sang a novelty song called the “Ballad of Chowchilla Ray,” a tribute to bus driver Ed Ray, and Karl Malden starred as Ray in They’ve Taken Our Children (also known as Vanished Without a Trace), a 1993 made-for-TV movie about the abduction. Then the whole episode faded from consciousness. The more I learned about the case, the harder it became to understand how that incident had been lost from the collective memory of the general public. The details are as sensational as other infamous 1970s crimes: the Patty Hearst kidnapping, or D.B. Cooper’s swashbuckling skyjacking, or Son of Sam terrorizing New York City. There was a school bus that appeared to vanish into thin air on a deserted highway, armed gunmen, terrified children, and an entire community in anguish. This is a story that contains all the elements needed to inspire artists and live on in the imagination of popular culture. How had it been largely forgotten?

The actions of Woods, the Schoenfeld brothers, and their victims stayed with me. I couldn’t shake it and I knew I had to write about it. I recognized that I could use the crime to explore other ideas and subjects that interested me, including how people's lives turn out the way they do, the stories we tell to explain our lives, the myth of American exceptionalism, the suburbs, money, con men, fraud, and sports.

(Right) Author Aaron Jacobs.

Since I’m a fiction writer, and not a journalist, the story I shaped became a novel. The result is Time Will Break the World. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the crime, with a story that moves from character to character, charting the thoughts and fears of the children, kidnappers, parents, and investigators. The novel also contains a parallel story line that takes place 30 years after the crime. My protagonists are Emily and Brenda Mashburn, twin sisters and survivors of the ordeal. Now, at age 40, they must experience their trauma anew as they film a documentary about the event in an attempt to prevent the parole of one of their abductors. Several other key characters also get current-day updates, to reveal the ways in which they, as adults, still grapple with the effects of their childhood horror. Meanwhile, the perpetrator’s brother fights for his release, hoping that a reunited family can finally bring peace to their elderly mother and ease the guilt he feels over his role in the kidnapping. A feud erupts between the criminals and the victims, and neither side is willing to back down.

Like all fiction inspired by fact, I’ve taken many liberties with the actual case and veered and swerved far from reality where the story demanded it. I’ve changed names, moved the location from the West Coast to the East Coast, and shifted the decade of the crime from the ’70s to the ’80s. As a matter of fact, the kidnapping takes place during the 1984 Summer Olympics, on the night gymnast Mary Lou Retton wins her gold medal, allowing me to juxtapose the best our country has to offer with the worst. But, in spite of all my tinkering, the heart of the novel is firmly rooted in a dark moment in American history, one that I likely would have never heard about if I’d gone ahead and deleted that e-mail message.

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