With her debut novel “The Last Checkmate” now on sale, Gabriella Saab is the newest major author with ties to the Golden Triangle. The Mississippi State graduate’s book was released by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, last Tuesday.
The heroine of “The Last Checkmate” is Maria Florkowska, a teenage girl who is caught, along with her family, aiding the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw in World War II. She is sent to Auschwitz in its early days, when prisoners were almost exclusively male, and women, children and those deemed unfit for labor were killed upon arrival.
In Saab’s story, a Nazi officer diverts Maria from the execution line when he notices a chess piece in Maria’s hand, one of her last possessions, and decides to leverage her for his personal entertainment. Chess also helps Maria find rare moments of comfort when she befriends other prisoners who help her survive.
While the main character in “The Last Checkmate” is fictional, several others are based on real individuals, including Karl Fritzsch, the Nazi officer who served as the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, and Father Maksymilian Kolbe, a priest and political prisoner.
Saab had the opportunity to travel to Poland to conduct research in Warsaw and at Auschwitz during the development of her book, calling it “an absolutely unforgettable experience.”
Auschwitz has been preserved to honor the more than 1.1 million who lost their lives there.
Saab counts the popular historical fiction writers Kate Quinn and Ariel Lawhon among her influences. She tells the Dispatch that she plans to continue writing historical fiction featuring strong female leads, and her next novel is in the works.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You graduated from Mississippi State in 2016 as a marketing major. Were you already thinking about becoming a writer at that time — or perhaps even thinking about this story?
This story was not yet on my mind, but I was absolutely thinking about becoming a writer! I majored in marketing because I knew those skills would be useful regardless of where my career went, but I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl.
Are you a chess player yourself?
I’m a much better one now! Before writing this book, I knew how to play, but I’ve learned so much more — though I’m nowhere near as skilled as my main character!
The character Father Maksymilian Kolbe is based on the true story of a Catholic saint by the same name. How did you first learn about his story?
He’s always been one of my favorite saints, so I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know his story. World War II history has always fascinated me, so that is one reason St. Kolbe’s experiences resonated with me so much. I’m honored to have been able to share more about him in my book.
Do you have a family or personal connection to World War II?
Men and women in my family both served in the military, and one cousin, who died before I was born, was an American POW in a camp. I wish I’d been able to talk to all of them more about their experiences. I can’t imagine what kinds of stories they would have shared.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Despite taking place in one of the darkest times and places in our collective history, I want “The Last Checkmate” to be a story that shows how courage, resilience and love can emerge and triumph over such evil. Though a story of loss and struggle, it is ultimately a story of strength, hope and survival, and I hope it encourages readers to learn more about the true history that inspired this work.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.