I have invited Sherry V. Ostroff, author of The Lucky One, a memoir, and award-winning Caledonia, a historical novel, for today’s interview. Sherry earned a Bachelor’s in education from Temple University and a Master’s in history from Millersville University. She taught all levels: elementary, secondary and college. Sherry devotes her time to writing, family, reading, and traveling. She lives with her high school sweetheart in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
I have had the pleasure of reading Caledonia. I was drawn to the storyline as it encompasses the history of Iberian Jews settling in, of all places, Scotland. The added intrigue of a modern-day woman, sort of floundering in her world of loss and mystery, connecting with her 17th century Jewish ancestor reeled me in. Throw in a couple of Highlanders and I was hooked! Let’s get started, shall we?
Host: Sherry, tell us what you’re working on these days.
Guest: My upcoming release is called Mannahatta. It is the sequel to my first historical novel, Caledonia. I expect the sequel to be out in the spring of 2021. Caledonia and Mannahatta are twin inter-generational stories covering two different time periods: 1696-1712 and 2205-2008. Both stories are in Scotland, Central America, and New York City.
Host: I am drawn to non-Holocaust, Jewish Historical Fiction. What motivated you to write about this specific time period?
Guest: This all started when I was drawn to an obscure historical event when the Kingdom of Scotland wanted to create a colony in the New World, in what is today, present day Panama. When I asked history teachers, history enthusiasts, and the Scots I’ve met on my many trips to Scotland, almost no one was aware of this remarkable event. I decided it was time for the world to learn about it.
Host: Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?
Guest: Someone a lot smarter than me once said, if you follow the course of antisemitism, you, you will understand world history.
Host: Sherry, your books deal with heavy subject matters. I am curious. While doing your research, were you particularly moved by anything you discovered? Did anything come as a surprise?
Guest: It is important to me, as a historian, to keep the facts. I know this is historical fiction, but my writing weighs heavily on the history side of the genre. Thankfully, in my research, I always come across interesting bits of information. For example, on a trip to the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, England, I learned that Admiral Nelson had a fear of dying at sea and his body tossed overboard. Therefore, he always had a barrel of rum set aside for such an event. When he died during the Battle at Trafalgar, he was preserved in the rum until the ship returned to England three months later.
This anecdote was brought to life in Caledonia by Cook Innes. This has happened many times while writing Caledonia and Mannahatta. My readers love these stories.
Host: Have you ever visited the locations you feature in your stories?
Guest: For Caledonia, I have visited almost every place mentioned in the book and that includes most of Scotland. For Mannahatta, I have also been to lower Manhattan and have gone on tours which describe what the area was like in its early days. Since half of the book takes place at the end of the 17th and early 18th century, I try to visit places, like living history museums and historical societies that will help me understand the time. The only setting I couldn’t visit was Darien National Park in Panama. There are State Department warnings and restrictions because it is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Therefore, I rely on the writing of others, those more adventuresome than me, and Google Earth is helpful.
Host: Which of your characters resonate with you most?
Guest: The characters in my book are like my children. It is hard to say that I favor one over another. It’s interesting when a reader contacts me and tell me how much they hate arch-villain Nathan. I just smile because he’s also my creation, and I’m fond of him.
Some characters are fun to write. The one that fits that description is Cook Davey Innes. He befriends the main character, Anna, on a ship set for the New World. I didn’t mean for him to stick around. He was meant to bring some levity to the awful conditions on board, but his character kept growing and revealing more and more layers; a gift that kept on giving. And so, he makes a return engagement in the sequel, Mannahatta.
Host: Do you have a favorite scene or event in the book? Don’t give anything away!
Guest: In Caledonia, the scene that brought me to tears was the final chapter. It tied everything together: a man of integrity, a proposal, and a death bed. But one of my favorite scenes was the removal of the botfly that had infected one of the colonists in Caledonia. It was a gruesome description, but wonderful to write.
In Mannahatta, there are so many scenes. But I guess my favorites are two. Early in the book, the discovery of a 300-year-old artifact that was believed to be lost and held so much meaning in the book. Another favorite is at the end of the book, when the mysteries that started in Caledonia all come together in a very satisfying ending.
Host: Are you already onto the next project? Are you able to share what you’re working on and when we can expect to see it in print?
Guest: I have started the research for another project. Presently, I’m in the “read for enjoyment” phase. I can only say that my next book will be an historical novel. Again, it is something that not many know about.
Host: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: I am available to meet with book groups and I offer 3 different book talks. They are not the usual kind of talks where the author reads an excerpt. These are discussions on the art of writing. One is called, “Fanning the Spark, The Creative Process.” This is about how an author gets an idea for a story and where they take it from until it is a book on a shelf. Another talk, my newest, is “The History Behind the Historical Novel.” In this talk I trace where the historical novel genre came from.
Host: I understand you are offering one signed book and one eBook (Kindle) each of Caledonia and The Lucky One. Readers, your comment, in the field below, is your entry in the giveaway. I will announce the winners next week, so stay tuned! Sherry is leaving us with an excerpt. Enjoy!
It was time. All my dad’s affairs were taken care of except for one last thing, a safe deposit box at a large bank in lower Manhattan. I put off emptying the contents because it was the final act of a tragic play with no encores. I feared if I wrapped up this last bit of business, I had accepted his death.
That’s how I found myself in a dank subterranean vault. I gathered up the contents of the box, balanced them in my hands, and walked out of the small room made available for the customer’s privacy. Wiping away a tear and sniffling quietly into a tissue, I handed back the nondescript key to the gray-haired bank clerk.
She eyed me sympathetically over her half-rimmed glasses attached to a chain around her neck, as I fumbled my possessions. “Miss Duncan,” she said, “maybe this will help.” She held out a plastic grocery bag. I guess she’d seen many come unprepared.
“Thank you,” I mumbled through my tears hoping she heard me.
I just wanted out of there. I ran up the steps and exited into the blinding sunshine, flipped on my sunglasses, and worked my way to mid-town and Penn Station.
My grandparents let me know beforehand what the box contained. There were no surprises, nothing of consequence: three $100 EE United States savings bonds, a copy of a title for a car sold years ago, a Boy Scout badge, a locket with my baby picture and a few strands of hair, and an envelope.
I held the plastic bag close and boarded the train that plied the northeast corridor of the New Jersey Transit. It would take over an hour and sixteen stops to reach the end of the line in Trenton. The train was full of people returning home after a day of working, shopping, or sight-seeing. A short elderly woman, who reminded me of my grandmother, sat next to me.
She smiled and complained at the same time, “My feet. These shoes are killing me.” She kicked them off and leaned back in her seat.
I nodded. I wasn’t in the mood for talking. Not today. Unfortunately, older people talk to almost anyone. The woman tried once more. “Hi, I’m Rose. Wasn’t today beautiful? If I had comfortable shoes, I would’ve done more shopping.”
I didn’t want to be rude, but all I could manage was a weak, “Hanna. Yes, today was nice.” What I wanted was to be left alone, lost in my thoughts remembering my dad and another perfect summer day that seemed to mock a national tragedy. On that day there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky to block out the sun or diminish the sky’s brilliant blue. For me, it was the coldest and dreariest day of my life. The day my dad was murdered.
The woman gave up, pulled out a book from her bag, and began to read. After a few minutes the train jerked forward. I settled in for the long ride home and tried to make myself comfortable even though there was never enough room for my long legs. Late arrivals scurried from car to car hoping to find a seat, only to be grateful to lean against a wall or a door. Some passengers were immersed in their phones or newspapers. Others stared blankly out the window. But the car filled with chatter as passengers discussed the latest gossip or the events of their day.
As the train lumbered toward its first stop in Secaucus, I clipped back my unruly hair, leaned my head against the cool glass, and gazed at the New York skyline. I would never get used to the missing twin towers. Their absence was like a gaping hole in a mouth full of teeth. No matter how you tried to cover it up, the smile was never the same.
A conductor collecting fares interrupted my thoughts. The snapping sound of his punch announced him, and quickly he was gone. The train continued southward to Newark, Elizabeth, and Linden while my thoughts returned to New York.
For twenty years my dad had worked at the World Trade Center as a senior accountant for one of the top firms on the east coast. He was well-liked and respected; he loved his job. He looked forward to going to work. Whether I was awake or not, his morning routine included a kiss on my forehead, a readjustment of my blanket, and a whispered, “Good morning, Sunshine,” before he slipped quietly from the house. He always arrived at his desk before anyone else, with a box of glazed doughnuts and fresh coffee to share with the overnight cleaning crew finishing their shift. His routine ended on September 11, 2001.
No one saw it coming, totally out of the blue, like the sky that morning. Everyone was in a state of shock. For me, it was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. Although four years have gone by, I’ve still not accepted it. The gut-wrenching part — my dad wasn’t even supposed to go to work that day.
As the train arrived in Princeton, a taped voice on the train’s intercom continually reminded departing passengers, mostly college students, to “watch the gap.” They jostled their way to the exits and quickly disembarked. The elderly lady, my co-traveler, left without a word taking her lemon scent with her. After the first few stops the crowd thinned, and I had the luxury of the entire row to myself.
The next stations were Hamilton, then Trenton. From there it was only a half-hour on the Trenton Line to Philadelphia. If I had a few minutes to spare, I’d call my grandparents. They were anxious about my trip to New York.
Dad’s parents were my only remaining family. My mother’s parents died before I was born, and I lost my mother when I was very young. My grandparents became my guardians for a few months after my father was killed. They were good to me but were a bit overwhelmed with the shock of losing their only son and assuming a parental role once again. I vowed that as soon as college was completed, I would go out on my own but live nearby, so we could visit often.
I exited the train, mindful of the gap, and tucked the plastic bag under my arm. Fortunately, the Philadelphia train was waiting at the platform. I entered, quickly grabbed a seat, and continued to think how different my life would be today if events had been altered.
Dad had helped me move in the weekend before the start of classes. By the time we were halfway down I-95, I realized I forgot my new cell phone. He offered to return in two days with the errant phone. It was a great opportunity to spend the day together before I got too busy with classes, papers, and friends. He checked his schedule to confirm the day.
“Hanna, Tuesday works for me. My new assistant, Carly, can manage the workload. I want to give her some space without always being there to get her out of a jam. She’s got to learn and gain confidence.”
“Great. Let’s go where you and Mom used to hang out when you went to school here. Show me some of the highlights of downtown Philly and the best place to eat in Chinatown.”
“Yeah, sure. I’d like that, Hanna. It will be our day, just the two of us.”
Just the two of us. I didn’t want to tell my dad I was homesick. But then, maybe he already knew. I looked forward to our day together.
I was so disappointed when Dad had to cancel. He was expecting some important client, and Carly wasn’t experienced enough to handle it alone. The parents of my roommate Jess lived near Dad and were coming down to replace a broken monitor. They offered to bring my phone and save my dad the four-hour, round-trip drive. Yeah, saved my dad the trouble, but it hadn’t saved him.
Thinking about the “what-ifs” really gets me down. What if there had been just one minor fluctuation in the order of events leading up to 9/11? What if Jess’s parents couldn’t make the drive, or if Carly had more experience? My father used to tell me that hindsight is twenty-twenty. In this case, exploring all the possibilities was especially painful. There are no satisfying answers to the “what-ifs.” There are no do-overs — period.