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In "The World of Pondside" virtual reality enables new end-of-life experiences

The dust jacket and hardcover version of 'The World of Pondside.'
Mary Helen Stefaniak
The dust jacket and hardcover version of "The World of Pondside."

Many of us think of nursing homes as places where loved ones can be cared for toward the end of their lives. But what if these places could allow residents to relive cherished experiences through virtual reality?

That’s the idea behind "The World of Pondside," a new novel from Mary Helen Stefaniak. The title comes from the VR game created by the characters Robert Kallman, an elderly resident at Pondside Manor, and Foster Kresowik, a young staff member. Together they build portals based on the memories of each of Pondside’s residents. Before long, even the staff at Pondside are using the game to create virtual worlds of their own.

When Robert is found dead, the game goes offline, and panic takes over at Pondside. Now, Foster is tasked with uncovering the mystery behind Robert’s death before the game is shut down for good.

One of the first things readers may notice is the book's unique cast of characters; the elderly and the young take center stage in the narrative. Stefaniak recalls how her family's experience with nursing homes helped inspire this decision.

"My mother spent about six weeks in a nursing home," she begins. "And she did not want to be there, which is not unusual for people in a nursing home. On her first day, she refused to eat lunch and she refused to eat dinner. So later that evening, she was very hungry, and she and I went in search of something for her to eat. We went into the kitchen, not expecting anyone to be there, but there was one young man still working. He looked like he was wrapping up, and we asked him if he could make a sandwich for my mother. He looked a little taken aback, and he said, 'Well, what kind of sandwich?' I looked at my mom and she said, 'Jelly. A jelly sandwich.' And he did it! He made her a jelly sandwich. She ate the whole thing. It was the first thing she’d eaten since she got there. And it was the kindness of that young man who asked no questions—he could see this woman was hungry and so he made her that sandwich. So that’s where the old and the young got into the story," Stefaniak says.

Mary Helen Stefaniak
The author in her home.

Throughout the book, most of the elderly residents at Pondside Manor play the VR game in order to relive familiar experiences. But some of the young staff at Pondside choose instead to imagine entirely new lives. Stefaniak describes how the virtual reality portals are made for each of the residents, as well as why older people may want to return to, rather than escape from, their past.

"In the book, when Robert and Foster are working on the game, they gather information from the person—photographs, videos, stories, and recordings—to create that individual’s portal. If you think about it, a person who’s near the end of life has a lot of experiences they might want to return to. And they do return to, in their imagination, all the time. In a sense, I feel as though the virtual reality game just uses their imagination as a springboard. They’re not wearing VR goggles, they’re just sitting at a computer using the keyboard and the mouse. So you can tell that a lot of the engine of the game is the imagination of the person playing it," Stefaniak says.

As a Milwaukee native and graduate of Marquette University, Stefaniak reflects on how her formative experiences in the city continue to help shape the characters and direction of her work.

"Well, of course Milwaukee influences everything that I write. My mother was a resident of Milwaukee, and she’s in the novel, in a sense. She’s the model for one of the characters. Laverne Slatchek has a kind of Milwaukee name—so does Foster Kresowik! I looked at the names after a while and I thought, 'there sure are a lot of Polish names in this novel.' So that’s concrete evidence of Milwaukee," Stefaniak explains.

Along with the tender, tragic, and often comedic relationships that develop between the residents and caregivers at Pondside, at the center of the book is a murder mystery. Stefaniak notes how this experiment in storytelling was surprising in its potential to appeal to all readers, no matter their age.

Mary Helen Stefaniak reads from her new novel, "The World of Pondside."

"I’ve never written a book that was specifically mystery or thriller before," Stefaniak explains. "One reason I turned to that is, if you set a book in a nursing home, which is generally not a very attractive environment for readers or for anyone, then you need to give people something else to think about, including the characters in the novel. So they have both the mystery of what happened to Robert, and another kind of mystery, which is how do they get back in the game. So those things were very important."

While maintaining the dignity and humanity of her characters is important, Stefaniak hopes that readers, too, will recognize themselves in the residents and caregivers at Pondside.

"Every reader is a potential audience member, because if you’re not young or you’re not old, then you’re in between and you’re thinking about your parents who are getting older. I think that’s one of the reasons the book is being marketed as a mystery-thriller, because [that genre] has an audience that ranges across all age groups. I think that different ages will take away different things," Stefaniak says.

Boswell Books will be hosting a virtual event with Mary Helen Stefaniak at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 21st.

Chase Browning was a production assistant with WUWM 2021 to 2023.
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