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The Master Planets
The Master Planets
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Donald gives an overview of the book:

The Master Planets is a novel that tells the story of Peter Jameson, an exuberant, musically gifted 19-year old in 1970s suburban New Jersey, whose life falls apart when he—and the world—learn about his mother's secret past in German-occupied Poland. After miraculously surviving a mass execution of her village, she had become a uniquely savage partisan fighter. Hundreds—guilty and innocent alike—died by her hand, while hundreds of others lived, all in a random, gruesome lottery of resistance. Thirty years later, her actions continue to take their toll on her American family… and, finally, on the man that Peter becomes. Today’s Peter—a fabulously wealthy, unethical New York powerbroker—doesn’t need to find salvation in the woman he loves. He needs to become once again worthy of her. Told through decade-spanning flashbacks and witty, superbly crafted prose, The...
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The Master Planets is a novel that tells the story of Peter Jameson, an exuberant, musically gifted 19-year old in 1970s suburban New Jersey, whose life falls apart when he—and the world—learn about his mother's secret past in German-occupied Poland. After miraculously surviving a mass execution of her village, she had become a uniquely savage partisan fighter. Hundreds—guilty and innocent alike—died by her hand, while hundreds of others lived, all in a random, gruesome lottery of resistance.

Thirty years later, her actions continue to take their toll on her American family… and, finally, on the man that Peter becomes. Today’s Peter—a fabulously wealthy, unethical New York powerbroker—doesn’t need to find salvation in the woman he loves. He needs to become once again worthy of her.

Told through decade-spanning flashbacks and witty, superbly crafted prose, The Master Planets is both an action-based story and a meditation on the ultimate costs of violence and revenge. Don’t miss this compelling read of literary fiction, with its larger-than-life characters and powerful scenes that will linger in your mind long after the book is back on the shelf.

Read an excerpt »

The Israeli Ambassador shook hands with me and I remembered the firm, tough grip from the last time we met, shortly after my mother’s death.

I didn’t see any point in prolonging my answer. Out of respect for his friendship with my mother, out of respect for what they had accomplished during the war, I had come in person to the New York consulate to tell him “no.” Afterwards, I planned to see the new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, something about the impressionists or perhaps it was the neo-impressionists. Then an appointment book crowded with anxious clients awaited me back in New Jersey. They all wanted legal advice on the best way to bludgeon a decayed warehouse district out of existence and into the sunny prosperity of upscale outlets and cafes.

“My sister and I will not attend the memorial tribute,” I said. “We’ll send the foundation a note thanking them for the honor.”

The Ambassador smiled at me. “Sit down, Peter.”

I hesitated. Then I sat down and said, “Please understand that we are grateful. But we’re tired of all the…” I stopped. I didn’t know how to explain to him the incongruity, the strange emptiness of my mother’s legacy as a war hero and survivor and her relationship to us, her family. “I don’t know what to say to these people anymore. They cry and want to touch our faces and hands. They want to thank somebody that we never knew. You have no idea the requests made of us over the years—everything from writing forwards for doctoral dissertations to chaining ourselves to a wall in Poland.”

“How is your sister?”

I looked at him. “Penny’s sick. But you knew that, didn’t you?”

“I heard she did some fine work in Africa.”

I didn’t want to talk about my sister with him. He knew that Penny’s career as a surgeon was probably over. He also knew that if he asked her, she would rush off to New York for the ceremony. Of course, after the ceremony, she would promptly return to her home in New Jersey where she would then lapse into another “episode.”

“She saved a lot of lives,” I said.

The Ambassador looked at me, assessing, I was sure, the changes in the boy who had opened the door for him on a warm day in May 1973. The Ambassador had certainly changed. The powerful frame of his body, the thick neck and broad shoulders that had made me wary of him when I was a boy—in fact, had made many people wary of him—had begun to shrink into the soft, shapeless posture of old age. I couldn’t imagine the youth he told me he had once been—the studious, sensitive brick layer’s son who longed to be a physician. Then again, I couldn’t quite imagine the person he claimed my mother was, the person he had fought beside in the forests of Poland.

“This was hard on you and your sister,” the Ambassador said.

I didn’t respond.

“How’s your law practice, Peter? Are you still with the same firm?”

“I’m on my own now.” I was amused and irritated by the question, by the shift in tone. Ambassador Gilaad had served as a security chief in the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, for many years. He didn’t ask simple questions, even if the questions sounded simple. I grinned at him and said, “You’ve changed, General, did you know that? Your eyes don’t have the same look anymore. Why, you could be, oh, I don’t know—a retired Rabbi.”

He laughed. “Maybe I should have been.”

We were silent. I should have left then, shaken hands with him, said, “Thanks, no, forget it, I’m done,” but the truth was that I found myself pleased to see him again, even if our meeting was a carefully scripted event.

“You know what I don’t understand?” I said, “I don’t understand why my father never even got a lousy tree planted in his honor. He not only saved my mother’s life, he had to eat her rotten cooking all those years. He also had to pretend that she was perfectly sane. Isn’t that worth one lousy tree?”

“Your father was a fine man. A very brave man.”

I nodded my head and the Ambassador said, rather gravely, “I remember how brave you were during that business with Colonel Meissner.”

I remembered. Of course, that’s what he wanted me to do—to remember, so I would relent and play my part in a complex, highly politicized public relations campaign.

“Did you ever hear about the robber who came into my mother’s flower shop?” I asked him.

The Ambassador’s eyes opened a little wider. He appeared intrigued. Another pretense, I’m sure.

“I didn’t know the whole story until years later,” I said. “When I was no longer a kid. When people thought it was okay to tell me things.”

“What happened?” he asked.

I smiled at his politely interested expression. “I’m sure you’ve never heard this before.” I leaned back in my seat. “She just narrowly missed getting prosecuted herself. Fortunately, my father knew the district attorney and the whole thing got hushed up.”

“Really,” he said.

“Yes, really.” I shook my head—amused, disgusted, sad—remembering. “I was about fourteen, I think. There were a lot of phone calls that day and there were detectives in the house. I remember how angry my father was—and my father didn’t get angry very often. Apparently, a kid of nineteen or so, a junkie, came into my mother’s shop around three in the afternoon. He asked for a bouquet of flowers. When my mother returned with the flowers from the back of the store, the kid had a gun in his hand, and he was pointing it at her. He wanted all the money in the cash register. He told her to hurry up. He said, ‘Give me the money fast, you fucking bitch!’”

I stopped and looked at the General. He knew what was coming. I couldn’t identify the expression on his face. Was that indignation? Surprise? Perhaps it was pity masked as anger.

“Aside from my mother and the kid there was only one other person in the shop—Mrs. Greenberg, the president of the local Hadassah. The kid told Mrs. Greenberg to sit her fat ass on the floor and not to move unless she wanted to get shot. Meanwhile, my mother had opened the cash register and put all the money on the counter, but closer to her side than to the side where the kid was standing. He had to reach a little over the counter in order to get the cash. I guess because he was junked up, he didn’t realize how calm my mother seemed. Mrs. Greenberg, on the other hand, was sitting on the floor, weeping quietly and shaking back and forth. She begged the kid not to hurt them.

“The kid reached over to grab the money. He still had his gun pointed at my mother. A glass vase shattered on the floor, behind the counter. The kid’s attention must have wandered for a second. I doubt my mother needed even that.

“Mrs. Greenberg said she was looking right at them, but she couldn’t make out how anyone could move that fast. All she knew was that the kid’s gun was out of his hand and now the hand was bent back on the counter. My mother gave the hand an odd twist. Mrs. Greenberg said she heard a bone snap; my mother did something else—another bone cracked. The kid uttered sharp, high screams. The kid kept screaming. My mother came around the counter with the kid’s gun. She reached over, took the kid’s mangled hand, put it back on the counter, and then slammed the gun down on his fingers. Mrs. Greenberg was holding her face between her hands, as if she needed a frame to believe what she was seeing. She was trying to shout at my mother to stop, but the words came out in soft, drowning sobs. The kid wasn’t shrieking anymore; he was moaning. ‘Oh, Jesus, lady,’ he begged her. ‘Don’t hurt me no more. Please, God, please, don’t hurt me!’

“According to Mrs. Greenberg, my mother actually smiled at the kid. She took his hair by the back of his head and gave it a firm jerk. Then, still holding his head back, she forced the gun between the kid’s lips, so that the barrel tapped against his chattering teeth. ‘I’m not God,’ she told him, an inch from his face. She moved the gun down his throat. The kid began to make choking sounds. Then he lost control of his bowels and bladder.

“Later, my mother explained to the police and Mrs. Greenberg that the dumb kid had never taken the safety off his gun. They were never in any danger. When the infuriated cops asked my mother why she didn’t just give the kid the money and avoid the risk of getting herself or Mrs. Greenburg hurt, my mother shrugged and said, ‘I’ll defend myself.’ When the lead detective investigating the case said, ‘Mrs. Jameson, you broke the kid’s wrist and two of his fingers. You also stuck a gun down his throat and threatened to kill him. Were you just “defending” yourself?’ my mother again shrugged. ‘Some people you can’t talk to,’ she said.

“The local Hadassah stopped inviting my mother to serve on its committees. I understood. Mrs. Greenberg and the other ladies knew that my mother was a victim of the Holocaust. What they didn’t know, at least not until the flower shop episode, was that she was also a violent and dangerous victim.”

I folded my hands across my lap and smiled a little at the General. “I found all this out years later from Rich Greenberg, Mrs. Greenberg’s son. At the time, he was interested in finding a divorce lawyer. I have no idea why he thought I practiced that sort of law. But we had lunch and caught up on old times. I think I heard from someone that Rich decided to stay married. He probably found out how expensive a divorce can be when you own a car dealership.”

The General shifted a few papers on his desk. He was smiling.

“You were brought up before the Bar Association’s Ethics Committee a few years back. How did that turn out?” he asked.

“Pretty well,” I said. “My standing with the Bar is still intact and the real estate for that shopping mall was sold at a fair market price. Would you like to open a cookie franchise? I could probably arrange it, General.”

“Please reconsider, Peter,” he said. “Your mother took at least thirty people off that train headed for Majdanek. She helped disrupt German operations in that part of Poland for nearly two years and she terrified people who weren’t used to being terrified—and certainly not from a Jewish woman. I have fought in five wars and I’ve seen every imaginable human response to almost every imaginable situation. Your mother suffered as millions of other people suffered but with one difference: She got the chance to fight back, to fight for some meaning in the midst of the world’s horror. There are thousands of people alive, and thousands more who will be born to them, because your mother had the chance to give of herself. I knew your mother and I know this: She was repulsed by her ability to kill. She admired gentleness and kindness even though she believed none existed in herself. There are many who wish to thank her for their lives, for actions that she never credited as brave or heroic.  Will you honor these people? Will you honor your mother?”

For a guy whose native language was Polish, the old General made a very nice speech in English. I had heard quite a few of his speeches, and this was one of the better ones. I also knew that as Leah Dansky’s son, my presence at the memorial tribute in New York would be an important piece of a much larger effort to secure financial aid for the state of Israel.

The General changed his method of attack. “My grandson wanted me to ask you a question,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows. His grandson? What was this about?

He shrugged in an apologetic way. “I really don’t know much about rock music.” The General put his reading glasses on and looked around his desk for a piece of paper. “Now where did I put that?” he murmured. He began to rummage underneath what looked like a pile of reports on his desk. “Oh, here it is,” he finally said, pulling out a slip of paper.

I had forgotten the General’s many devices. The absent-minded old man ploy was a bit overwrought, I thought.

“How old were you,” he said, reading off the paper, “when you wrote ‘The Battle of Britain’ and ‘Oh, Laurie!’”?

He took his glasses off.

The bastard.

donald-nelson-gallinger's picture

Note from the author coming soon...

About Donald

Born and raised in Norwich, Connecticut, I grew up hearing first-hand stories of WWII partisan fighters from friends of my parents. These stories, absorbed during childhood, probably inspired my interest in the politics of resistance later captured in my novel, THE MASTER...

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Published Reviews

Sep.14.2008

"The Master Planets is a magnificent, mysterious book. Near the end I wished it had been less unforgettable, so I could sit down and read it again." -- New York Times best-selling author, Thomas Perry

Sep.14.2008

"Donald Gallinger has written a remarkable book… a brilliant novel of humor, suspense, music, history—and family… a whirlwind ride in which we see extraordinary connections made between seemingly disparate...