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  • Jo Schaffel

Creating Characters: The Real Lena Mercer

Jo Schaffel and I worked together at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. We became good friends, and we coauthored our young adult historical novel Somewhere Besides Denver. One of our novel’s characters, Lena Mercer, was based on a member of Jo’s extended family. Welcome, Jo, to blog about creating a character from a real person—even when she lived long before you!


One inspiration for Somewhere Besides Denver was Josephine Marion, my father-in-law’s great aunt. We used a bit of her life story to build the character of Lena Mercer, the chaperone for three teens who go on an exciting European tour after they graduate from high school.

Josephine Marion was born on June 5, 1862, in Denver. Her parents, Joseph and Etiennette, had emigrated from France in 1854 and opened a series of successful stores. Josephine was described by my family as “the belle of the city” and was active in Denver’s social and political life. She had been engaged, but her fiancé died suddenly and she never married, so she had to support herself. She worked in the Colorado State House as Registrar in the Land Office. Marion and Josephine Streets in Denver were even named after her! In the early 1900s, Josephine started chaperoning society girls on trips to Europe, and in between trips, she taught French at the all-girls school Wolfe Hall.

By around 1920, Josephine had decided to remain in Paris. She lived through the Nazi occupation during World War II. My father-in-law and his sister both served in France during the war and visited her when they could. Josephine was very well educated and spoke several languages, which came in handy during the Occupation when (the family story goes) she spoke fluent German to some Nazi officers and talked herself out of being removed from Paris. My father-in-law said Aunt Jo was a “feisty, determined little woman” who pushed ahead in lines by smacking people with her cane!

Josephine died in Paris on March 27, 1946, at age 83. Unfortunately, our family has no letters or other records from her time in Paris. I wonder how in the world she survived, living there during the war when she was in her 70s and 80s . . . and why didn’t she come back to the US?

In Somewhere Besides Denver, the character Lena Mercer is younger than Josephine would have been in 1907. But like Josephine, Lena is also a teacher—before she chaperones Violet, Helen, and Marion on their Grand Tour to Europe. Marion, of course, is named for Josephine Marion. Agate, Colorado, where Helen’s ranch is located, is where my father-in-law was born. And Helen attends Wolfe Hall School, where Josephine actually taught. We gave Lena a fiancé who died, like Josephine’s, but we also gave her a budding romance with the character James Goodhue.

Somewhere Besides Denver weaves historical facts—the London Olympics, the women’s suffrage movement, Paul Poiret’s fashions, the 1907 Paris art salon exhibit—with our imagining of what it might have been like to travel from Denver to Europe at that time. We were intrigued by the thought that a daughter of immigrants living in a new Western city would be taking society girls to Europe.

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