The Spies of Shilling Lane (Crown, 2019) is an exhilarating spy thriller and the touching coming-of-middle-age story of a woman, who transforms from provincial housewife to London sleuth, after her daughter goes missing during World War II. When asked for the inspiration behind such an original mixing of genres, author Jennifer Ryan mentions her own beloved grandmother’s divorce, as well as an article she chanced upon in a newspaper: “I read about an old lady who died in London, and beneath the floor in her attic they found a Second World War semi-automatic Sten gun complete with ammunition. She had been a spy, both during and after the war. My mind brimmed over with questions. Who was she? What did she do? How had she kept this secret? … Meanwhile, a series of MI5 files were declassified, which meant that I could find them in the National Archives.”
Although Ryan pays tribute to her literary forbears, among them, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, E.F. Benson, and P.G. Wodehouse, she points to another group of writers who aided the creation of her Shilling Lane heroines: the diaries and letters of ordinary women written in the course of the war. Ryan mentions in particular the journals of Mrs. Nella Last, a 49-year-old housewife, who lived a quiet life in the busy mid-sized town where her domineering husband managed a factory when war broke out. “Nella became involved in the Women’s Voluntary Service, setting up mobile canteens for soldiers, raising money for the hospital, and visiting the bereaved. By the end of the war, she vowed never to let her husband or any other man dominate her ever again. It is her metamorphosis that inspired me to write this story; how women of all ages changed their way of thinking about themselves, going from dependent housewives to powerful, resourceful individuals.”
Of course, Ryan’s main protagonists, Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter Betty, engage in significantly more dangerous activities than those advocated by the Women’s Voluntary Service. Eventually, they investigate a spy ring, whose members are Englishmen and Englishwomen in sympathy with the fascists. These individuals are the ‘enemies within,’ planning and carrying out attacks on British institutions, facilities, and persons from inside Great Britain. Their portrayal in The Spies of Shilling Lane is effective and chilling; the result, so Ryan attests, of her close study of the files kept on members of fascist organizations during World War II. “The reading was fascinating,” she says, “and I closely based many of my fascists on the real ones… Many of them were obsessed with Hitler, although some of the leaders were more interested in opportunities for power. It made riveting reading, and I wanted to follow it as closely as I could.”
Against these villains, Ryan sets the formidable force of Mrs. Braithwaite’s daughter Betty, whose portrayal is based on women becoming useful to intelligence organizations during World War II. “Before then, the only role for a woman in espionage was as a sexual lure. By 1940, there was an urgent need for young, stealthy people to infiltrate underground anti-government groups. Those people were women. They came from all over the country. Young Betty Braithwaite, at twenty, is among these. Clever and keen to stretch herself beyond the usual mundane women’s jobs, she quickly finds a spot in MI5, from whence she was selected for more special work. She is based on Joan Miller, whose memoir was published posthumously in Ireland, MI5 trying to block it all the way.”
By contrast, Mrs. Braithwaite, who comes to London to visit her daughter only to discover that Betty has disappeared, is unprepared for the horrors of the London Blitz. As she turns detective in order find her beloved child, “she isn’t based on anyone in particular, although perhaps her bombastic snobbishness is reminiscent of one Mrs. Chantrell, an overbearing friend of my grandmother’s,” Ryan elucidates. “As with my previous novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, I used the stories from my grandmother and other women who remembered the war to form a backdrop of what it was like to be a woman at that time. Among the horrors, it was a time of opportunity, changed roles, and freedom. It was a time to rethink their roles and the society in which they lived. I wanted to give this gift to Mrs. Braithwaite, enable her to reconsider her life and her relationship with her daughter.”
Asked whether there will be a sequel, Ryan reveals that she is delighted by reviews in The New York Times, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly saying that readers of The Spies of Shilling Lane will be left wanting more. “Perhaps they won’t have too long to wait!” she hints in closing, giving her fans hope that she will soon take them on another enthralling literary adventure with Mrs. Braithwaite and her friends.
About the contributor: Elisabeth Lenckos, PhD, is the editor of Jane Austen and the Arts and The Literary World of Barbara Pym. She is on the HNS Social Media Team and reviews for the society. She is currently at work on a novel about two adventuresses in 18th-century India.
“If the Führer says it is true, it must be true, however preposterous.” – Arvid, Resistance Women, p. 438
In 2019, when we hear the word “resistance” in the context of politics, images of boisterous, possibly angry, protests spring to mind. Even when we think of the word in the context of World War II, we tend to think of the French and English resistance with their relatively public acts like bridge bombings and guerilla warfare.
But what Jennifer Chiaverini’s sweeping new novel, Resistance Women (William Morrow, 2019), teaches us is that resistance hasn’t always been loud and daring; in fact, in Hitler’s Germany it was nearly silent. Being the center of the Reich, this was of necessity. “At the height of the Nazi regime, overt public demonstrations such as large marches and other protests simply weren’t possible because anyone attempting these kind of activities in the heart of Berlin would have been arrested or shot on the spot,” she said.
In fact, even today, many outside of Germany are not aware of the German Resistance’s existence. Chiaverini has brought their stories to light by showing readers what life was like for three historical and one fictional German men and women, beginning in the days leading up to Hitler’s ascent to power, through the end of the war, covering the years 1929-1944. “Learning about Mildred Fish Harnack, Arvid Harnack, Greta Kuckhoff, and the other members of their resistance network inspired me to write about their lives and the cause that mattered so much to them,” she explained.
Small, Quiet Steps
Germany’s Resistance, or at least the branch at the center of this book—described by Chiaverini as “a circle of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called the Rote Kapelle, Red Orchestra, for the treasonous ‘music,’ crucial military and economic intelligence, they broadcast to enemies of the Reich”—began innocently enough with the blatant violation of a rule most citizens deemed ridiculous: Hitler’s April 1, 1933, national boycott of Jewish businesses. This is the first act of defiance carried out by Sara, Amalie, Mildred and many other women in the book.
Not long after, the artistic community of actors, playwrights and producers began to get in on the quiet protest, writing subtle satire and allegory into their shows. At the same time, groups of men began covertly producing flyers and other literature speaking out against the Nazis. While Mildred dared not join that dangerous band, she used her role as a university professor to teach “her students how to recognize and refute propaganda, how to defend themselves against it with reason and logic,” (p.154) assigned them to write “essays that inspired a better vision of humanity” (p.235) and ran a study group where it was safe for students to speak against the Nazis and discuss subversive ideas.
Slowly, the resistance became more organized as they widened their scope to include Soviet Communists and were able to take advantage of the intelligence their new allies gathered. In addition, they gained a bit of support from the United states in August 1935 when the historical Clara Leiser, a writer working for the court of New York, arrived in Berlin as an official observer of the Nazi mass trials. Mildred and Greta were able to use their burgeoning network to gather intelligence that Clara could take back to the United States in hopes of moving the reluctant government to join the war.
Eventually, the women were accepted as couriers as well, passing information and equipment on to other members of the resistance and putting themselves in equal danger with the men, despite their male counterparts’ insistence on dismissing their contributions as inferior. “What I found most remarkable about Mildred’s resistance circle was that at a time when the Third Reich vigorously strove to limit women’s roles in society to Kinder, Kirche, Küche (Children, Church, Kitchen), nearly half of the Rote Kapelle were women,” Chiaverini said. “Although most of the strategic decisions were made by the group’s male leaders, Arvid Harnack and Harro Schulze-Boysen, the women assumed responsibility for recruiting members, organizing meetings, collecting intelligence, acting as couriers, translating, copying, distributing leaflets, concealing radios and other illicit equipment, sheltering fugitives, and many other activities that put their lives at risk, often to a greater extent than their male counterparts.”
The Power of Propaganda
Contrast this covert activity with the highly public spectacles of the Nazi regime. Seemingly random to the average citizen, the party carefully planned riots, rallies, and other demonstrations of strength, even well before Hitler became the supreme power in Germany. During these dangerous events, hundreds of men pushed their way through otherwise peaceful town streets, breaking windows (especially of Jewish-owned establishments), setting fires and firing guns, all the while shouting their support of Hitler and disdain for the Jews. They rejoiced when average citizens joined in their hate-fueled demonstrations, but did not hesitate to beat, bully or even kill those who did not and were unfortunate enough to get in their way. This was followed by highly public book burnings as the Aryan Laws went into effect. As Mildred presciently thinks, “Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.” (p.119)
As Hitler steadily rose in the German government, these events became more targeted, and, in a sick way, revered. They “had become the Nazi equivalent of a Holy Day of Obligation.” (p.365). The first and most scared of these was the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s November 9, 1923, failed coup attempt that landed him in jail on charges of high treason and made him a hero to his followers. Another was Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, a night in which “tens of thousands of Jews had been arrested…dragged from their homes, paraded through the streets and eventually forced into trucks and hauled off concentration camps…Almost every synagogue in Berlin has been desecrated and severely damaged, or destroyed utterly” (p.367). Despite their obvious victimization, the whole event was officially blamed on spontaneous uprisings of the people at the urging of the Jews.
“Hitler understood very well the power of propaganda, theatrics, and appearances, and he used public spectacles to drive his narrative of a unified, powerful Third Reich in order to energize his supporters and intimidate his enemies,” Chiaverini noted.
But perhaps the most obvious sign of Hitler’s willingness to go to any lengths to publicly display his country in its best light came in his efforts to clean up Berlin for the 1936 Olympic games. As Chiaverini writes:
“…More important to Hitler was the appearance of prosperity. Pamphlets were distributed to every household encouraging citizens to grow flowers rather than vegetables in their gardens and window boxes. Vacant shops and offices on main thoroughfares were leased at significantly below-market cost, with additional subsidies available so that proprietors could spruce up their new storefronts. Unsightly Roma camps were demolished overnight…familiar tokens of the new Germany began quietly disappearing. The ubiquitous signs in store windows declaring “Juden unerwünscht” were removed…Posters announcing the Nuremberg Laws and other regulations stripping Jews of their civil rights were torn down, every trace of paste and paper scrubbed from the brick. (p.289)
In addition, Hitler used the opening ceremonies to praise the countries that cheered for him and Reich, in an act of “sports as political theatre” intended, as one character notes, to motivate the international spectators to “carry home the impression that Germany is the most hospitable, peace-loving nation on earth, if you can overlook all the martial flourishes.” (p.296)
Hitler’s Reality versus the Real World
In the end, it was the juxtaposition between Hitler’s version of reality and the reality of the German resistance against him that made Hitler hate them with such vengeance. Chiaverini explained: “He was so deeply offended and outraged by the Rote Kapelle because the resistance network included many members of the academic, political, and military elite, people who could have expected to prosper beneath Nazi rule. Hitler blamed any dissent in Germany upon Jews, Communists, and other ‘undesirables,’ and he was stunned when he learned about these respected theologians, esteemed professors, an employee of the Ministry of Economics, a Luftwaffe intelligence officer, and others who had also rejected his plan for a Thousand Year Reich.”
Which may explain why he came down so hard on them when the Rote Kapelle was discovered through errors made by the Soviets. “Of the forty-five members of the Rote Kapelle who received death sentences in the Nazi courts, nineteen were women—courageous women from all walks of life, not trained spies or armed soldiers, but ordinary and extraordinary women who risked everything to fight injustice and defend the persecuted,” Chiaverini said. One of them was Mildred Harnack, the only American woman executed on direct orders of Adolf Hitler, and whose story is told so compellingly in Resistance Women.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online here.
A few months ago I wrote an article titled Get Your Characters from A to B Authentically: Online Resources for Ground Transportation. With this follow-up article, I’d like to share two other modes of transportation that you may find useful when drafting your historical novel.
“Four In Hand,” print by Currier and Ives. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2001699185
A web search on “horse-drawn vehicles” will bring up many museum websites, but only some of them provide substantial online content that would be useful to historical researchers. I’ll highlight the best ones I found below.
This organization’s website, which celebrates and preserves the history of the horse and its role in civilization, offers a page of horse-related video clips. Watch a London street scene in the 1890s (how did anyone make it across the street alive back then?), see a film of Victorian-era carriages, and view footage of an 1890s doctor’s buggy being driven. There are also some interesting clips on how to drive a carriage, which could be useful for making sure your historical character knows what he or she is doing when holding a set of reins.
This is a digitized version of a book published in London in 1853, presenting the world history of land vehicles to the mid-19th century. There are sections covering China, India, Russia, ancient Egypt and Rome, and the Americas. There’s no bibliography, so this would be more of a starting point for research rather than an ultimate authority, but it does have some interesting illustrations.
While this museum offers only a small handful of carriage images on its website, historical novelists will find the link to the page of digitized carriage manufacturers’ catalogs very useful. The links which I spot-tested jump to the Google Books listing for that title. Click on the image of the catalog’s cover to open. Most of the catalogs are from the 1890-1910 era, but a few are earlier, going back to one from 1818, which lists prices. Regency authors will want to consult this Silk & Sons catalog to know how much their characters would have spent on their purchases.
The carriage collection is housed at the National Trust property at Arlington Court near Barnstaple in Devon. Its website has an interesting timeline of the history of carriage travel. Facts in the timeline include: a coach took 14 hours to travel between Barnstaple and Taunton in 1805, and the barouche was introduced in England in 1760. The site also offers five images of highlighted carriages from its collection.
While the museum collects transportation equipment from all eras, HNS members may be most interested in the section of the website on the history of ox, mule and horse-drawn vehicles. Western authors will find the photos provided on this page about historical transportation in Texas useful for descriptions. Click on a photo to enlarge it. The text gives context to the pictures, as well as facts: teamsters earned $20 a month, and a 10-mule team could pull a wagon weighing 7,000 pounds.
George Mossman of Caddington, near Luton, created this collection of historic carriages, which today are displayed at the Stockwood Discovery Center. The organization’s website offers a slideshow gallery of 27 images of historical carriages. Click on an image to retrieve a description and date for the vehicle.
“Eliz. Freeman enrout to Wash’n” [Elizabeth Freeman on her way to join a suffrage march in Washington, 1913]. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2002712188
This page from the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit offers 30 images of highlights from the Museum’s collection of American historical vehicles. See Tom Thumb’s miniature carriage, mail and hay wagons, hearses, and a veterinary ambulance. Click on “details” to see a full description, dimensions, and color and material descriptions.
Skyline is a “living carriage museum with an antique carriage & sleigh collection…” in Maine. Its website offers a slideshow of about 80 images of horse-drawn vehicles from its collections. While there are no descriptions or dates listed, the slides do provide a nice visual reference for a novelist’s descriptions.
[Windsor, Boulter’s Lock, Berkshire, England, ca.1890-1900]. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2002696960
As with carriages, there are many canal history websites out there, but only some of them have substantial free online content that could be of use to historical novelists. I’ll highlight some of the ones I found below.
The Canal Museum Trust exists to “advance public education in the history and use of inland waterways…” The above link will take you to a page with links to oral histories, offering “memories of people who lived and worked on the canals.” There are several interviews with lock keepers and people who worked the ice trade, and one who discusses what it was like to live on a boat with few amenities. The Trust’s website also offers a “picture shop,” with photos and prints available for sale depicting canal life, but website visitors can view the images without paying a fee.
This website is about the history of the U.S.’s most famous canal, especially the area around Rochester, N.Y. The link will take you to the site’s images page, where you can view photos and postcards of the canal in the 19th and 20th centuries. The site also offers a “historical documents” page, which offers transcripts of important documents from the canal’s history. The “traces” page shows present-day photographs of the remains of the canal which are no longer in use. The “maps” section offers a multitude of historical maps of the canal, which you can click on to enlarge. The website lists the copyright owner as an individual, not a museum or historical organization, and has not been updated since 2017, but I think it still contains useful information for researchers.
The link will take you to a page which offers PDF documents aimed at educators, each one offering a primary source document on the canal’s history, like period newspaper clippings, or historical maps, followed by suggested exercises and activities for students to perform. This would be a good place to start your research, if you didn’t know much about the Erie Canal before you begin including scenes set there in your novel.
The link above will take you to the Trust’s learning resources page. Find the section “Activity Supplement Packs” to view a list of PDF files the Trust makes available to educators. The one titled, “Working Afloat” gives interesting information on what life on a UK canal boat was like. It’s aimed at children, but sometimes children’s nonfiction literature is a great place to start to learn about a topic you don’t know much about.
Canal boat school, 1921. Credit: Library of Congress. Control number 2016831386
This organization’s website concentrates on canals in the state of Indiana, but I saw some out-of-state content as well. Of interest to researchers: there are boxes to click on called “Canal Biographies,” so if you are looking for a real-life historical figure to put into your novel about canals, here’s a wealth of information. Click on a name and a PDF document with biographical information about the man will pop up. Researchers should also click on the “Tour Guides, Books, & Articles” box, which will provide a list of clickable documents, some published by the Society, on various aspects of Midwestern canal history and life.
This state-based historical society offers substantial descriptions and statistics on the Morris and the Delaware & Raritan Canals, including timelines, diagrams, and photos. The “publications” link takes you to a page where you can view PDFs of past issues of the organization’s On the Level magazine about canal history.
While this website is run by an individual, not a society or museum, I think its historical images pages would still be useful to researchers. The link above takes you to a history of pre-1850 Canadian canals, with an overview map, and links to click on canal sections such as Lachine and Soulanges.
The University of Florida’s Library website offers the Leonard Carpenter Panama Canal Collection, which documents the building of the canal starting in 1914. Digital images include photos of U.S. military personnel workers in the 1920s, dredgers, 1928 views of the canal, and various publications such as a 1929 booklet describing what it was like to travel on the canal in those days. Click on the “description” in the bar at the top of the screen for more information about the photos and documents.
Don’t forget: when you are thinking about using a website as a historical resource, perform the CRAAP Test on it before trusting the information. Is it Current? Relevant to your research? Authoritative?
Accurate? What’s the website’s Purpose?
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.
A historical novel’s appeal lies largely in how it brings to life a time that’s past and one about which we perhaps know very little. When I began reading The Great Pretenders (Berkley, 2019), I realized I knew next to nothing about Hollywood in the 1950s, despite having watched numerous films produced during that period. And while I’ve learned about the McCarthy era and the racism that led to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States through other reading, I didn’t appreciate how these struggles influenced the movie industry.
Author Laura Kalpakian tells how she became much more aware of the Hollywood blacklist era after watching renowned director Elia Kazan receive a special award at the 1999 Academy Awards. Kazan’s honour angered many viewers because he had once testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and disclosed names of former comrades in the Communist Party, which altered their lives forever.
I asked her how she went from that moment to creating this novel.
“That was a long time ago, but the image certainly stayed with me, the uproar within the starry gathering, and more vocally, out on the street,” she said. “I had read Victor Navasky’s Naming Names (to my mind, still the best overall book on the subject) and returned to it; this time, though, I was moved as well as shocked to read the stories he tells in those pages.
“The creation of The Great Pretenders began with conversations I had with an editor who was interested in novels about women in media. I was reminded of a minor character in a book I had published in England (Three Strange Angels, Buried River Press, 2015). This character became an agent in Hollywood in the 1950s; that’s basically all I had said of her, but she intrigued me. I kept wondering: what would her life have been like in the perilous era of the blacklist.”
As the granddaughter of a film studio mogul, Roxanne Granville’s life should have been problem-free. As Kalpakian puts it: “She comes to the page trailing her glamorous youth and childhood, her connections to Cyrano de Bergerac, her headstrong ways, her confidence undermined by the stain on her cheek. She is sassy and occasionally shallow, but she grows into maturity and bravery.”
Instead of opting for marriage to a man deemed eligible by her sister and grandfather, Roxanne decides to become a career woman, representing writers of screenplays. She eventually founds her own agency, which her Hollywood connections placed on the path to success, but she made two brave decisions that the establishment could not stomach. These decisions, and their repercussions, are the meat of the book, so to say any more would spoil the plot. What I can say is that parallels can be drawn between what happened in The Great Pretenders and recent events in America.
Kalpakian said many readers have commented on how prescient the book is in the current climate.
“For one thing, the entertainment industry is once again completely upended with the advent of streaming and the struggles between the new giants, Netflix, Amazon and Apple. They are doing to the entertainment industry what television did when those first spindly antennas began appearing on roofs all over the [US].
author photo by Jolene Hanson
“The [accusations against] Harvey Weinstein . . . started unspooling while I was in the throes of writing the novel. That certainly made me think of how Roxanne would have fared in an industry that took women’s sexual compliance more or less for granted. Being the granddaughter of a powerful man would not have spared her. Roxanne has her Me Too moment that colors and makes more dramatic the moment where she casts the scripts off and quits her job, and insists on going independent.
“Every time I hear on the news the phrase ‘contempt of Congress’ I feel a little jolt of déjà vu on behalf of my characters. While I do not use the term McCarthyism in the book, the fears [Joseph McCarthy] inspired affected government, the armed forces, publishing, education. [In The Great Pretenders,] I concentrated on what was happening in Hollywood so I used the term blacklist era. But it is no small irony that Roy Cohn, a major figure in the ugly chapter of McCarthyism, was a mentor to the current US president.”
To better understand the blacklist era, Kalpakian read at least a hundred books. She says she was astonished at the amount of material published on the topic, and even more astonished at how partisan much of it was.
“This era was also the beginning of the modern civil rights struggle, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she said. “The names that every American school child knows, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, this is where all that started. Researching the Montgomery Bus Boycott was eye opening too: for more than a year these citizens stood their ground. I made up the phrase about their shoes giving out, but not their spirit.”
Terrence Dexter, a pivotal character in the novel, is a journalist who travels from California to Alabama to report on the events unfolding there. His experiences give Roxanne her first glimpse into what life was like for those not born into a white, wealthy, influential family.
I asked Kalpakian what she hopes readers will take away from The Great Pretenders.
“The Fifties are often nostalgically invoked as the Good Old Days, circumstances we ought to return to. I would like readers to walk away from the novel with a deeper understanding that those days were fraught with tension and injustice, just as our own era is. That the past is not smooth, sheeted plain; to the people who live through these events, they are every bit as tumultuous as the present.”
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
She may have to wait a few more years to make her appearance on the US twenty-dollar bill, but Harriet Tubman has been brought vividly to life in a new novel, The Tubman Command (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in the 1820s. She grew up on the Brodass family plantation in Madison but was regularly hired out to other families, working as a nursemaid to other children at the age of six. As a teenager, she was hit on the head during a confrontation between an owner and another slave. Tubman suffered from severe headaches and epilepsy for the rest of her life as a result. In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, crossing into Pennsylvania and finding safety in Philadelphia, but almost immediately she began working to help others find freedom, leading groups of slaves toward safety via the Underground Railroad.
Yet that’s not the part of Tubman’s life that is the focus of The Tubman Command. As author Elizabeth Cobbs explains: “Most people know her from the Underground Railroad, but she was also a Union spy who received a military pension after the Civil War. This is a part of her career that’s typically brushed over—perhaps because it’s so hard to believe that a such a tiny woman could pull off what she did, at a time when the Union seemed on the verge of defeat. Honestly, I just wanted to figure out how she did it.”
The episode Cobbs refers to is the Combahee River Raid of June 1863. Through the dramatic events leading up to and during this raid, Cobbs brings Harriet Tubman to life as a leader and a lover. “I hope people will take away that she was a real person, with hopes, fears, loves, and regrets—just like us,” Cobbs explains. “She was our nation’s greatest female patriot, yet she also struggled and made mistakes. Realizing that, feeling that, will make readers love her more, I hope. Tubman challenges all of us to be better people. When we put her on a pedestal, we let ourselves off the hook for not being courageous about the challenges of our own time. We all want love. Harriet did, too. Most people don’t know she was married twice: once before the Civil War to a man who broke her heart, and afterwards to a man who shared her thirst for freedom and justice. (He, too, served with the U.S. Colored Troops, as they were then called.) If we want to know Harriet Tubman’s heart, we need all of it. The backstory helps readers visualize her as a full person. Plus, what’s a good novel without a love affair?”
The Tubman Command is a tightly written novel that deals unflinchingly with the harshness of life during this period of American history. Being true to the time can be a challenge. “If we want to understand what it was like to be enslaved,” says Cobbs, “we have to imagine all the ways, small and big, that being “property” unexpectedly twisted people’s lives. One of the most chilling realizations with which I came away was that all of Harriet’s four brothers escaped to freedom, yet none of her four sisters did. Slavery trapped men and women differently. I hope readers will feel Harriet’s sorrow at this incomprehensible loss. Like her, I myself am a middle child in a large family. It’s hard to fathom what it would mean if my three sisters simply disappeared—because they were “breeders”—and my three brothers survived.”
Author Elizabeth Cobbs
As well as investing emotionally in her story, Cobbs was careful to use language to give her characters realistic voices in their speech. “The thoughts in our heads are without accent, but speech is flavored by where and when we grew up. In my first draft of the book, everyone spoke as if delivering the weather report in Kansas City. But then I realized that to respect my characters’ time and place, I needed to let more of the flavor through. So I tried to distinguish between voices of the Lower and Middle South, and New England and upstate New York. I even let a bit ‘o Scottish immigrant dialect into the mix! America was as diverse then as it is now, so it seemed important to reveal that diversity, without overdoing it.”
The Tubman Command gives an engrossing picture of the sheer strength and bravery of Harriet Tubman, as much through the small details, as the larger action the novel describes. A prime example is the detail that Tubman knocked her own tooth out with her pistol. Was that really true? Here’s Elizabeth Cobbs’s answer: “That’s what people who knew her said! In the 19th century, people didn’t grin at the camera as we do now, so in the few photographs we have, Tubman’s mouth is closed. Because she was illiterate, historians must rely on the testimony of acquaintances for depictions of her personality, appearance, and actions. Described as “fine looking” when young, she was also described as missing a tooth. The story was told that she knocked it out herself when it became so painful during an escape that she feared she couldn’t otherwise lead.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).
Only a dwindling group of eighty- and ninety-year-olds can remember Nazi Germany and most of them were children at the time. However, the memory still haunts succeeding generations of people around the world. How did the Holocaust happen and, more importantly, why?
Jennifer Cody Epstein explores this challenge in her novel Wunderland (Crown, 2019). “What I wanted to get at,” she explains, “was how that terrifying metamorphosis happened, what it looked and felt like to ordinary Germans over the relatively slow burn of the Nazi era. Because that was something I’d never really been able to wrap my head around: how ordinary, ostensibly good people in a progressive society allowed themselves to become complicit in something so unequivocally evil. Calculated, systematic slaughter on that scale simply defies the imagination on some level, and because of that we keep coming back to it, trying (and inevitably failing) to make some sort of emotional sense out of it. I also think we are often looking for reassurances that it couldn’t happen again, or to us, or that if it did we as individuals wouldn’t make the same kinds of catastrophic choices.”
Of course by no means all Germans were complicit, but 51 percent voted for the Nazis in the last free election. Wunderland is not about the war or the Holocaust but mainly about Germany in the 1930s, as the Nazi ideology took over the nation.
The other reason Epstein wanted to write about life in the Third Reich was “to try to get into the emotionality and dailyness of the run-up to the Final Solution; because when you think of it only in terms of those incomprehensible final chapters I think it’s actually much easier to distance yourself from them—even to fool yourself into a kind of dangerous complacency. But if you tighten the lens to the point where you are considering the multitude of individual, small and perhaps minor-seeming steps and decisions that cumulatively led to genocide, it suddenly doesn’t seem so removed.”
One of the main characters in Epstein’s book is Renate, a teenage girl who discovers she has Jewish ancestry only when she applies to join the BDM, the female branch of the Hitler Youth. From then on everything spirals downwards: exclusion from her “Aryan” school, and then an avalanche of legal disabilities and personal humiliations. Luckily she escapes to America before the worst can befall.
The other main character in Wunderland is Renate’s best friend, Ilse, who is accepted by the BDM and becomes an ardent Nazi. She is as much a victim as Renate, forced to spy on her friend and betray Renate’s brother, the man she loves. The alternative was torture by the Gestapo.
The book covers the lives of the two teenagers from 1933 to 1939 and follows up episodically through the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. Ilse’s daughter, Ava, becomes the main protagonist in the post-war episodes. The story culminates in New York in 1989, with a form of reconciliation.
Despite the upbeat ending to her book, Epstein questions how well we have learned the lessons of history. “As an American currently witnessing a shocking resurgence of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment across both North America and Europe, it certainly seems as though the lessons of the Holocaust are less in the forefront of people’s minds than they were, say, twenty years ago. And in researching for the more current-day sections of Wunderland I did read some fairly interesting pieces about a kind of ‘guilt fatigue’ that is surfacing in more recent German generations who feel unfairly saddled with the crimes of their grandparents’ and even great-grandparents’ era. To be honest, I don’t find that all that surprising. What’s disturbing is that the fatigue can translate into a lack of empathy for the Holocaust victims and sometimes even overt resentment of them.”
Epstein’s choice of title, Wunderland, references Renate’s passion for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which she reads in translation. Nazi Germany was so terrible and at the same time so irrational and absurd that it seems to her like a bad dream, like Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole. It was a nightmare that still leaves us in a state of shock 75 years later.
About the contributor: Edward James is one of the UK review editors for the Historical Novels Review. He has published two historical novels, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood Books) and Freedom’s Pilgrim, A Tudor Odyssey (Endeavour Press) and is working on a third, Beyond the Big River.
Congrats to the following authors on their new releases! If you’ve written a historical novel or nonfiction work published (or to be published) in Feb. 2019 or after, please send them in to us or tweet the details @readingthepast by July 7: author, title, publisher, release date, and a blurb of one sentence or less. Details will appear in August’s magazine. Submissions may be edited for space.
In A Distant Field by RJ MacDonald (Warriors Publishing Group, Nov. 11, 2018), two brothers survive the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and go on to enlist in the Seaforth Highlanders; all too soon they find themselves heading towards the bloody battlefields of WWI.
Set during WW1, Colleen Adair Fliedner’s In the Shadow of War: Spies, Love & the Lusitania (Sand Hill Review Press, Nov. 15, 2018) weaves together a patchwork of real events, including the bombing of the U.S. Capitol, the attempted assassination of J.P. Morgan, and the sinking of the famous passenger liner that took the lives of 1,198 souls.
Zimbabwe Falcon by David Maring (BookBaby, Dec. 21, 2018) covers the conflicts involving the Rhodesian Pioneers, Boers, Ndebele, Shona, and a black Jewish tribe in the region between Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers from 1898- 1923.
In Joy to My Love by Karen M. Edwards (Amazon, Jan. 2), Effie Innes has encountered prejudice and belittlement most of her life, but when two men she loves are taken from her Lowland Scottish fishing village to fight in the War of 1812 with America, she finds the courage to reach out for what she wants.
The Serpent, The Puma, and The Condor: A Tale of Machu Picchu (Mnemosyne Books, Jan. 22), Gayle Marie’s debut historical novel, is set during the time of Pizarro’s invasion of Peru and is told from the Inca perspective.
Marina Osipova’s How Dare the Birds Sing (indie, Jan. 24) takes readers across the 1930s Stalinist Soviet Union and WWII in a tale whose characters are bound by secrets, love, hatred, and unthinkable quirks of fate.
The second book in a two-part series, P.K. Adams’ The Column of Burning Spices (Amazon/Iron Knight Press, Feb. 1) tells the true story of Hildegard of Bingen, who, enclosed in a Rhenish convent at a young age, defies the medieval Church hierarchy in her quest to become a physician.
Peculiar Savage Beauty by Jessica McCann (Atlantis Audio Productions/Perspective Books, Feb. 26) was praised by Publishers Weekly as a “…gripping, atmospheric novel. McCann’s Dust Bowl saga meshes a seminal event in American history with a suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters.”
Nancy Blanton’s third novel, The Earl in Black Armor (Ellys-Daughtrey Books, Mar. 1) is a story of loyalty, betrayal, love and murder, centered around the life of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, in 1635 – 1641.
In The Deceivers by Bill Page (Matador UK, Mar. 19), set in Roman Britain in AD 370, unwilling to comply with an order from Caristanius Sabinus, governor of Britannia Prima, to hand over a mysterious figurine of the Underworld Goddess Hecate, Canio sets out to acquire a fake good enough to deceive him: it may not end well.
Arthur, Dux Bellorum by Tim Walker (TimWalkerWrites, Mar. 1) is a re-imagining of the King Arthur story from a historical perspective.
Ervin Klein’s novel Subterfuge (Enigma House, Mar. 31) is a World War II story of a missing U-boat, a Nazi cover-up, and a son’s determination to discover the truth.
White Rose by Kip Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify, Apr. 2) is a YA novel-in-verse that recounts the lives of Sophie Scholl and fellow members of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, highlighting their brave stand against fascism.
In Bright Axe, second in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles by Christine Hancock (Madder Press, Apr. 11), set in the 10th century, Byrhtnoth is torn between his quest to find his father and his duty to his lord; his friends suffer, and in Northumbria he encounters wolves and a mysterious woman who offers him news of his father – and more.
The Time Collector by Gwendolyn Womack (Picador USA/Macmillan, Apr. 16), a romantic thriller between two psychometrists who can touch objects and see the past, travels around the world and through time to solve the mystery behind out-of-place artifacts that challenge the timelines of recorded history.
Mary Lawrence’s The Alchemist of Lost Souls (Kensington, Apr. 30), is fourth in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries set in Tudor London, where Bianca risks her life to prevent her father’s dangerous discovery—an amalgam of earth and fire—from being used against the King’s army in Scotland.
In Kate Braithwaite’s The Girl Puzzle, A Story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat, May 5), asked to type up a manuscript revisiting Nellie Bly’s experience in a New York asylum, Beatrice believes she’s been given the key to understanding one of the most innovative and daring figures of the age.
Abe & Ann by Gary Moore (Komatik Press, May 15) is a novel based on the little-known story of Abraham Lincoln’s passionate romance with Ann Rutledge in his twenties, when long before he was a bearded wise man saving democracy, he was homely, timid, and hopelessly in love.
In Book 3 of Catherine Kullmann’s The Duchess of Gracechurch Trilogy, The Duke’s Regret (Willow Books, May 28), when Jeffrey, Duke of Gracechurch is forced to realise how hollow his marriage and family life are, he is determined to make amends to his wife and children and forge new relationships with them.
The past meets the present in Jessica James’ Lacewood (Patriot Press, Jun. 18), a haunting read about the restoration of an abandoned mansion, and the secrets it reveals about a long-lost love.
In Promises by Eileen Joyce Donovan (Waldorf Publishing, July), Lizzie, age 13, is among the children sent to Canada to avoid the brutal bombing of English cities during World War II; however, this doesn’t mean she escapes the horrors of war, since both on the voyage and in the fishing village where she and her brother are sent, she experiences danger, cruelty, and loss, but resiliently forms alliances, makes plans, and takes charge of her life.
The latest novel from Stephanie Marie Thornton is a departure for the author. Her previous novels have featured heroines from ancient Egypt and Greece to 6th century Constantinople and 12th century Mongolia. With American Princess (Berkley, 2019), the author has moved to the 20th century and has made Alice Roosevelt—the wild and impetuous daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt—her heroine.
When I asked about this transition, Thornton said: “It has meant a whole lot more research! Whereas stories set in the ancient world allow the writer a little more freedom—there are bigger gaps between Recorded Historical Event A and Recorded Historical Event B—most of Alice’s life was documented in great detail. However, all that coverage also meant that I was hopefully able to capture an authentic glimpse of Alice’s personality, given that I had access to her diaries, journals, and letters.”
Thornton’s novel details Alice’s life from her teen years (as she is launched into society just months after her father is sworn in as president) and continues through her ups and downs in love and life as she smokes, swears and gambles her way through two world wars, an infamous family feud and numerous heartaches.
Her story seemed to Thornton like it was just waiting to be written. “I’ve been a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt since my student teaching days when I had to prepare a lesson about the Progressive presidents and realized how much charisma Theodore Roosevelt possessed in just his little finger,” Thornton explained. “Later, I became intrigued with Alice’s story when I read Roosevelt’s quote, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” From there, I stumbled on a picture book about the wild escapades of Alice’s youth and then discovered that she remained untameable for the entire ninety-six years of her long life. I knew hers was a story I needed to write!”
author photo by Katherine Schmeling Photography
Of course switching from writing about women from ancient history, however well known, to writing about a woman whose every move, every clothing choice, every relationship was written about, analysed and speculated over by the press meant a change in research technique. “I started with Stacy Cordery’s biography Alice and then dug up every book about the Roosevelts that I could get my hands on. I was also able to visit the Roosevelt home at Sagamore Hill, plus I received access to to…Alice’s collection of papers at the Library of Congress. It truly makes a difference to be able to walk where your characters walked and see what they saw, not to mention reading their own words as major events unfolded.”
Although Thornton found it a huge benefit that Alice’s personal documents, letters, and journals were collected and accessible she felt the added pressure of writing about a well-known persona. With so much information available, she had to be sure to get it right. A major element of the story was the long-running, and at times very bitter, feud between Alice and her cousins FDR and Eleanor. Thornton discovered that there were at least two, in fact sometimes more, than two sides to every story.
“I was surprised at first about the ruthlessness on both sides of this war between cousins. Considering that they were family, they really threw some punches that were far below the belt. It intrigued me that Alice and Eleanor were able to forgive each other later on in life, but then again, that’s what family does, right?”
The author’s current work-in-progress features another American icon who suffered from the public gaze: Jackie Kennedy. “If I thought I had to do a ton of research for Alice Roosevelt’s story, I had to do ten times as much to reimagine Jackie’s life!” Thornton said.
American Princess gives readers a glimpse into a world of high society and glamour and a heroine who, despite her apparent wealth and position, felt caged and constricted and determined to push the boundaries of that constriction in whatever way she could.
About the contributor: Lisa Redmond is a writer, currently working a novel about 17th-century Scottish witches. She blogs about books, writing and women in history.
Set in an Australian rural community in the 1960s and 1970s, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Putnam, 2019) has as its hero a thirty-something man who fell into farming when he inherited his uncle’s property. Tom is recovering from some personal loss around the time that Hannah moves into the area to open up a bookshop. People soon learn that she’s originally from Hungary and is Jewish – but since their knowledge of what unfolded in Europe during World War II is virtually non-existent they are unable to imagine what her past might have been like.
As Tom gets to know her, he comes to understand that she spent some time in a place called Auschwitz and experienced unimaginable suffering. It is the theme of how love can help one move forward from such suffering that drives this novel forward.
“All my novels are about love and its trials,” says author Robert Hillman. “In this book, the trials that love faces are about as piercing as they can ever get. My two central characters come to love each other, and the question for the reader that emerges is this: What can love achieve? Everything? Nothing?”
Parts of The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted are set in Europe during the 1940s and 1950s. Readers follow Hannah’s arrival at, and eventual departure from, Auschwitz, her return to Budapest and her quest to leave Europe (and her experiences there) behind. When she makes her way to Australia, it is as different a world as she could imagine and this contrast serves to make the horrors she lived through even more pronounced.
author photo by Jeremy Dillon
Hillman says he chose to set the novel in Australian farming country because he grew up in rural Victoria “surrounded by hill pastures and grazing sheep”. He does a wonderful job of painting the picture of Tom’s farm with its resident aging horse and blind pony, dairy cows, chickens, sheep dog and of course sheep, as well as the small town where Tom stocks up on supplies and the residents of the surrounding community. The other Australian setting he brings to life is “Jesus Camp”, a fundamentalist Christian enclave where Tom’s first wife retreats with her son, Peter.
“Although there is no equivalence of suffering [with Auschwitz], Jesus Camp echoes across the years to the camp in which Hannah was imprisoned,” Hillman says.
He goes on to add: “It would be grotesque to suggest that the suffering of Hannah at the hands of the SS could be compared to Tom’s sorrow when Peter is taken [to Jesus Camp]. People can recover from a broken heart, but the particular circumstances of Hannah’s heartbreak – no. The issue is not “recovery” but whether a commitment to life might allow a person to bear a terrible burden and still see the poetry in the world.”
Despite everything she suffered, Hannah somehow did, which is partly why she decided to establish her bookshop. She privately named it the “bookshop of the broken hearted”, writing the phrase out in Hebrew in a part of the world where only she was able to read the words. Throughout the novel, her belief in the power of books to heal is made clear, but she knows that she will always carry some measure of heartbreak with her.
A small farming town might seem like a strange location to set up shop in any country or any era but this choice serves to underscore to the reader her determination to succeed. Even though Tom warned her that the people of his area weren’t big readers, she believed she could interest the community in books of some sort, if not literary classics.
“Hannah grew up in the thrall of literature,” Hillman explains. “That she should conceive of opening a classy bookshop in a cheerfully philistine Australian town suggests something quixotic in her character, but it stands for something else, too: victory, in the life of all Jews who outlived those who wished to murder them and found the courage to embrace life again, a victory is recorded.”
Hillman wrote the biographies of three female survivors of the Holocaust, which required hundreds of interviews. He drew on the experiences of these real-life women when he was shaping Hannah’s past and family background.
When asked what he hopes today’s readers will take away from this 20th-century-set novel, Hillman says, “Suffering caused by violence has been with us in all seasons, in all centuries. It may be the outcome of ungovernable loathing, as in the Holocaust, or of an obscure program of revenge. But most suffering is less dramatic, unrelated to violence; unrequited love, bad news from the doctor. Life is more about coping with disappointment than enjoying an unbroken series of triumphs, since we can all imagine greater happiness than we can ever realize. Tom and Hannah adopt the only possible strategy for dealing with disappointment: find the courage to persist.”
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
Betty Freidan once said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Author Eugenia Lovett West could well have inspired those words: her writing career began during her fifties and will peak this year, when, at age 96, she’ll release two new novels.
One of these is Sarah’s War (SparkPress, 2019), which is set during the American Revolution, when main character Sarah Champion finds herself set up by her aunt as a spy for the patriots.
“I seem to end up writing about strong women working their way through problems in interesting settings,” Lovett West says. She knows something about that kind of life, having spent many years travelling throughout four continents with her husband and raising four children. During this time she did some freelance reporting, and wrote a book she describes as “historical thriller.” Then, in 2004, she entered a writing contest at St. Martin’s Press with a book she had previously self-published as a gift for family and friends. She didn’t win the contest, but editor Ruth Cavin was impressed enough to offer Lovett West a two-book deal. This launched her mystery series.
With Sarah’s War, Lovett West returns to historical novel writing, and she includes in it her love of suspense and a fast-moving story – two things she contends mysteries and historical novels have in common. Regardless of genre, she says, for a writer “there is always this compulsion to want the reader to turn the page.” So she injects suspense and a fast pace via “red herrings and judiciously scattered clues” in her mysteries, and by “balancing facts with the imagination” when writing historical novels.
Sarah’s War is a story that balances real and imagined characters and events, something Lovett West admits is a challenge. George Washington, General Lord Cornwallis and General Sir William Howe all feature in the treacherous situations the fictitious Sarah finds herself having to navigate. The British really were holed up in Philadelphia for the winter of 1777-78, waiting for better weather to resume fighting. British officers did attend society functions, and hosted dances and soirees in their headquarters. And there really were threats on George Washington’s life. In the novel, Sarah schemes and flirts her way into British officers’ confidence, her battlefields the drawing rooms and ballrooms of Philadelphia, her role as a spy drawn from what actually happened during the war.
Researching and writing this book has given the author an enduring interest in the American Revolution and the period. “I had no idea,” she says, “how close we came to losing the war for independence and how much we owe those dedicated patriots who managed to form a democracy that must be preserved.” She also tried when writing the book to maintain a strong sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. To convey this convincingly, she “did boots on the ground” research in Philadelphia and Valley Forge, and spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. “I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing,” Lovett West declares, “and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a serious mistake by letting his troops fall out for lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to escape.”
To confirm and clarify what she’d learned during location research, she turned to written records and also called upon period experts. “I spent a lot of time at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library with journals written at that time. An emeritus professor of American History at Wesleyan University checked facts and advised. In the end,” she says, “there was a lot of cutting – it really hurt.”
Her journalist background had prepared her for those painful cuts. “Working as a journalist is great training,” she counsels. “You learn to cut adverbs and adjectives and meet deadlines,” skills which she confirms are applicable to articles of 300 words or novels of 300 pages.
In addition to journalism, Lovett West has this advice for writers who want to sustain a long career into later life: first, it takes time to develop as a writer. “My first novel was sheer trash, but I was learning to find my voice.” Second, trying out different genres is good practice, especially for younger writers. “I started when I was in my fifties. With hindsight, I probably should have kept to one genre; younger writers have the luxury of experimenting.” Overall, though, “if the urge to write is there, one makes the commitment. The key is just sitting down and applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Eugenia Lovett West continues to look ahead, and may return to writing history. “It’s a wonderful learning process that benefits both the writer and the reader. But at age 96,” she says, “each day is a gift. My aim is to live with kindness and courage – and the will to keep creating.”
About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith is the author of two non-fiction history books: the family saga, Strength Within: The Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005), and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She is also a photographer and poet, and blogs here.