WESTERN SPRINGS – The story was too good, so Dianne Kowal Kirtley decided to borrow her in-laws for about seven years.
In 2004, shortly after retiring from 25 years at Nazareth Academy as an English teacher, department chair and a handful of other positions, Kirtley was helping her father-in-law move into a retirement complex when she found papers that linked her husband's family to Joseph Bonaparte, brother of French emperor Napoleon.
Intrigued, she started to research the connection. Kirtley soon learned that several of her husband's ancestors were personal attendants to Joseph Bonaparte's family.
"Then my interest was really peaked," Kirtley said.
Her research led her through stacks of books and to places like the library in Avon, Ill., and the bank of the Ohio River. In January, after seven years of legwork, writing and editing, it all paid off. Kirtley's first novel, "Point of Departure," was published, and it now sits on the shelves at local libraries.
The book is a historical fiction version of her ancestral in-laws' journey from outside Paris to Illinois, two places that, in 1841, couldn't have been more different.
"Imagine you get raised in this very privileged society in France … and then all of a sudden your parents say, 'Guess what? We're moving to this place across the ocean,'" Kirtley said.
The main character is Charlotte Louise Josephine Mailliard, her husband's great-great grandmother. Charlotte, educated with Napoleon's nephews, was 14 when her family left France for Illinois, which was then the country's westernmost frontier and a place thought to be filled with savage people.
"All of a sudden your life is so terribly uprooted," Kirtley said.
In the book, as her family travels to Illinois, Charlotte, who's learned her new country is the land of the free, witnesses a slave auction in Kentucky. Once in Illinois, Charlotte develops an interest in a half-Native American man, Henry Moreau, which signals scorn from many residents.
Moreau was made up by Kirtley – though the backlash for dating a "half-breed" would, at the time, have been real – and eventually Charlotte meets the man she marries, the great-great grandfather of Kirtley's husband.
Sound complex? Seven years doesn't seem like so long anymore considering the web of relationships Kirtley had to recreate, along with her research to make the novel historically accurate.
"I'd read a little bit and then I'd think, 'I don't know enough about this,'" Kirtley said. "And then I got two or three more books to read."
The novel, which ends with Charlotte and her family's experience of the Civil War, has already made it into the hands of several local book clubs.
"Each of us, I'm sure, has a story in our family to tell," said Kirtley, whose husband, Rich, ran a technology company that sold computers to schools for 20 years. "This one, just because of the attachment to European 'royalty,' just seemed so remarkable for the life they had and what life became."
"Point of Departure" is also available at www.kirtleybooks.com and at the public libraries in La Grange and Western Springs. It can also be purchased on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.