A few weeks ago, I wrote about my Work in Progress: Celestial Persuasion. You can read about it here.
I’m getting closer to Publishing Day and I can’t wait to share it with you. In the mean time, please take a minute to watch this short trailer. The painting of Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson was the inspiration for the entire project. Please enjoy!
Coming soon! Celestial Persuasion on Amazon.
Abigail Isaacs fears ever again falling under the power of love and dedicates her life to studying the heavens. However, upon her father’s demise she finds herself in reduced circumstances and must write to her brother, who has long been away at sea. When instead Captain Wentworth of the HMS Laconia sends a tragic reply, Abigail is asked to set aside her own ambitions and fulfill her brother’s dreams in the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata.
In his relentless pursuit for justice, Lieutenant Raphael Gabay lends his sword to the Spanish American cause. But as he prepares to set sail with the others, he is entrusted with the care of a young woman. She is quite unlike anyone he has ever known, and Raphael wonders whether the brilliant astronomer will see beyond his frivolous façade and recognize his true nature.
Their destinies have been plotted beyond the celestial veil; their charts foretell of adventure. Can these two troubled souls be persuaded to heed the stars and find love—and their purpose—in this fledgling nation?
Hello again! Today, we are in for a special treat. Renown Israeli author, Sara Aharoni joins us in this series of Authors’ Interviews. Sara has been a teacher, an educator and has worked as a school principal for 20 years. She also spent four years in Lima, Peru as an educational envoy of the Jewish Agency.
Together with her husband, Meir Aharoni, Sara wrote, edited and published a series of books about Israel, including six in English. She has also published six children’s books. Her third novel, Mrs. Rothschild’s Love (the English title is The First Mrs. Rothschild), went instantly to the top of the Israeli bestseller list. Aharoni received the Steimatzky Prize for Best-Selling Book of the Year.
I have read this work and found it inspiring and thought-provoking. As you all know by now, I am fascinated with this time period. The Rothschilds, the Montefiores…what these family were able to accomplish under that level of persecution and oppression is mind boggling! Let’s find out more.
Host: Welcome Sara. You have done a remarkable job bringing this family to life for me. Kol hakavod! Please set the stage for this project. How did it all come about?
Guest: Thank you for inviting me, Mirta. I’m excited to be here. As an Israeli, born and living in Israel, I write my historical novels in Hebrew, and I am happy that my book, The First Mrs. Rothschild, has been translated into English and distributed by Amazon Crossing. It presents the life story of the Rothschild family in the Judengasse (the Alley of the Jews) in Frankfurt, who rose from extreme poverty to a global economic empire. The story takes place between the years of 1770 to 1849; from the marriage of Gutle to Meir Amschel Rothschild, until her death at the age of 96. The idea of writing this book was born from my visit to the agricultural settlements in Israel under the patronage of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the well-known philanthropist. The visit was intense and aroused in me the desire to get to know him more deeply. I started to read books about Rothschild, and the more I read, the more I felt like writing a novel about him. I continued reading and reached the roots of the Baron, his grandfather, Meir Amschel (or Mayer Anshel, it’s the same) Rothschild, who lived in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and raised the family from a state of dire poverty to a great wealth. This inspired me to write the novel about the founder of the Rothschild family.
Host: I certainly can understand being intrigued by the family’s founder; however, your book is written through the eyes of his wife, Gutle. Correct?
Guest: Right. I wanted to place the wife in the center of the scene. During my research I discovered that historians wrote a lot about the founder and his five children, and very little about his wife, Gutle, and her daughters. I regretted that. I was curious to know Gutle’s character. So, I continued to read and find details about Gutle. Every piece of information I found was like a diamond. I collected all the details into a chart which turned into a puzzle I could piece together to discover her character. I found a very special woman: a modest, intelligent woman with a big heart, giving, helping each person. Her kitchen was a shelter. Anyone who wanted to pour out his heart to someone, would come to her kitchen. She knew her place as a woman (it was the 18th century), knew when to keep quiet and when to say what she thinks. She had a wise heart and great understanding. For example, she used to send shirts from Judengasse to her son Nathan in London. She knew that Nathan was a very rich man and could buy expensive shirts in London, so why did she send him shirts? Because she was worried her son was changed. He made contact with the high society and showed signs of vanity. She didn’t want him to forget where he came from. She knew that when a shirt from Judengasse would touch his skin–he would never forget where he came from.
Her modesty is self-evident. She never left the ghetto even though her children were already living in palaces and offered her rooms there. Gutle loved Meir Amshel and supported him all along. Despite his strength and energy, he needed his wife behind him. This woman captivated me, and I decided to give her a stage and pass on the family story through her.
Host: That was what had me glued to the page — Gutle’s story and her views on life, family and their place in the world. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, genre?
Guest: As an ancient people thousands of years old that spread across the globe, we have become rich in a wide range of Jewish cultures – each diaspora and its Jewish culture: culture, language and creativity. Our Jewish history is rich in events, figures, upheavals, ups and downs – great achievements in the face of terrible tragedies. All of these are immortalized in the books of history, the first of which is of course the Bible that unfolds the history of our people and is a central focus of Jewish culture for generations. I see the historical novel as an important means of combining literary fiction with historical reality, which gives the reader an opportunity to become acquainted with the world of the Jews in a fascinating way. I sometimes hear history teachers say that the historical novel can bring students closer to history lessons. I consider it important that future generations become acquainted with Jewish history, and the historical novel is an integral part of the means of realizing this.
Host: And how would you differentiate a history book from a historical novel?
Guest: The fiction in the historical novel is adapted to the historical facts and fills in the gaps, the same gaps that the history books skip over, such as the moves of the mind, descriptions of emotions and thoughts, and the influence of these on the chain of events. For example, regarding my book, The First Mrs. Rothschild, historical sources indicate that Gutle, the wife of the founder, Meir Amshel Rothschild, gave birth to 19 children, of whom 10 survived. I must not change this basic fact. But I think as a woman, as a mother, as a writer – a mother who loses one baby feels she has lost her world. Gutle lost 9 children. The historian does not dwell on the mental state of the grieving mother. His role is to describe the sequence of events. In the historical novel I was given the opportunity to fill in the blanks and give a broad canvas to the loss. The historical novel develops in the reader an interest in the character and period. In The First Mrs. Rothschild, the historical background is woven throughout the novel: the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Damascus plot. Quite a few readers turn after reading the historical novel to other sources to enrich their knowledge of the period.
Host: As an Israeli author, do you have any thoughts on what the Diaspora considers a Jewish book? By that I mean, Israel and the Jewish community at large, is a diverse and unique culture, yet—here in America—we tend to focus on two narratives: The Holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof-type themes. There is obviously so much more to talk (and read) about.
Guest: Within the Jewish story, Jewish culture is intertwined with the holidays and customs, such as Shabbat. It is not there as a title and is not dominant in the story, but is a natural part of the characters’ lifestyle and general atmosphere. It is a culture that accompanies us throughout history, it has created for us the special identity as a people, and it must be given expression. It is part of the respect for the faith and the Jewish people.
Host: Sara, tell us about your first book, Saltanat’s Love. I understand this was the impetus for your career as a historical fiction novelist.
Guest: My first novel was based on my mother’s life as a Jewish girl growing up in Iran. Through the story the reader is introduced to the lives and culture of Iranian Jews in the 30’s and 40’s of the 20th century. How did it happen? On a trip together with my mother in Europe, she told me the story of her life. I’ve already heard her story with my brothers when we were little, but in those days, it was as if my mother took a strainer with small holes and only part of reality was heard. That is, we were spared all sensitive parts. During that trip in Europe, I was already an adult and myself a mother of children. Mother allowed herself to throw away the sieve and tell me the whole story. I heard the story and remembered that when we were little, Mother used to say: ” All I went through would make a book.” And now, when I hear the whole story, including the sensitive parts, I understand that this is a story to be written. I decided to write the book as a novel. The great and unexpected success of my debut novel made me decide to continue writing novels, or rather, historical novels.
Host: Have you visited any of the locations you have written about?
Guest: After reading so much books, letters and documents, I felt a need to physically get to the places where the Rothschilds lived. The first place I wanted to reach was Judengasse. But I knew I had no chance, because at the end of the World War II, the United States bombed Frankfurt, and the street was completely destroyed. But where the Rothschilds’ house once stood, they set up a museum – the Judengasse Museum. The visit to the museum left a strong impression on me. I saw the miniature structure of the street with the wooden houses, the reconstruction of a section of the street, including a ritual bath, the attire and the accessories they used, and the large pictures hanging on the walls. I will describe to you one of the pictures called “The Jewish Sow.” It was a relief placed above the gate of the city of Frankfurt and was in front of the passers-by every day. The picture shows a large sow on which a rabbi is riding. The rebbe raises the tail of the sow so that another rabbi will eat from its feces. There are Jewish children sucking from her nipples, and on the side, the devil stands and watches with pleasure.
I saw this picture in many books I read. But in the museum, I stood frozen in front of the big picture for a long time that I cannot measure, but long enough for me, to express the novel in this picture. On the journey to the Rothschilds I also reached London and Paris.
Host: I can well imagine being paralyzed standing in front of such an atrocity. The cruelty of being forced to live under such conditions, of being constantly reminded of what the outside world thought of you and your people…it is a testament to their faith and perseverance that the Rothschilds, and others of that generation, were able to overcome such prejudice and persecution. You describe these daily events so well. I was transported. I love this quote: “Dignity is a powerful thing. We shall use it to break through the walls of the ghetto and set ourselves free.” Do you have a favorite scene from the book?
Guest: My favorite scene is Gutle’s visit with her mother in the Forbidden Public Park. Every leaf, butterfly, branch and shrub is a world in its entirety for someone who has dreamed of coming to the garden all her life but the garden was on the list of prohibitions imposed on her and the Jews of Frankfurt. This scene makes it possible to raise the difficult reflections regarding the injustice done to the Jews. Here is excerpt:
“Look, Gutaleh, how pretty this garden is.”
Mama tightened her grip. Her eyes sparkled. I looked at the glory of the garden. A carpet of beauty spread before me, as if to say, “Here I am! And where have you been this whole time?” My eyes took in the sights. All the wonders of the world could not compare to the splendor of this place. I felt I had to hurry up and drink in this luscious view.
Suddenly, I felt sad. The thought of all we had been deprived of until now filled me, pushing away the brilliance before me, threatening to take hold of my mind. Our people’s cruel fate was knocking on the door to my heart. I watched my mother, her burning eyes. She was living the moment, leaving the past behind. I must be like her, enjoy these moments to capacity. I mustn’t wallow in darkness. I must regain my senses. At that moment, I recognized that other smell. It was the aroma of freedom. Freedom smells intoxicating, superior to all other scents. I would always remember my first whiff of freedom.
Host: That was a powerful scene! Tell us, are you working on something now?
Guest: I am in an advanced stage of writing the next historical novel, about a Jewish historical figure. I hope it will also be translated into English.
Host: Thank you for joining us today, Sara. It was such a treat! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thank you very much for interviewing me. I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with you. If you want more information about me or my book, here is the link to Amazon:
Argentina—the word conjures up images of fiery gauchos and romantic tangueros…or is it romantic gauchos and fiery tangueros? If your travel agent suggested this country as your next vacation destination, what would come to mind? Based on my experiences, most people respond with the Broadway song, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina. They think of crazed soccer players, or worse yet, they imagine a country overrun by escaped Nazis. I have another image; but mine is painted by a refined hand, a landscape of multiple layers of color, shadows, and dimension. You see, although Argentina is my native country; it is not my ancestral home. I’m the granddaughter of Russian immigrants—Jews fleeing the pogroms and chaos prior to the Revolution.
My Argentine travel blog would not showcase the exquisite architecture inspired by the French. Museums, theaters, cultural and government centers abound. There’s no particular need for me to point them out. I wouldn’t speak of the British influence on such things as finger sandwiches, polo or afternoon tea. Neither would I speak of how the Brits constructed the nation’s first railroad system. I wouldn’t ramble on about the grass-fed cattle or the mouthwatering cuisine heavily influenced by the Italians. I wouldn’t point out that you could visit prairies, jungles, deserts, glaciers or the majestic Iguazú Falls—larger and wider than Niagara and far more breathtaking. I understand…you want to know about all these things. You want to know about gauchos and hear about the Paris of South America, with its sensual nights of dancing tango and drinking Malbec; but in my world; Argentina is about drinking maté and eating potato knishes in my bobe’s house. Yes, I said my bobe’s house (not bubbe).
Jews in Argentina? They went there during WWII, right? No! Although there has been a Jewish community in South America since the time of Cristobal Colon (that’s Christopher Columbus), significant number of Jews began arriving towards the end of the 19th century. You are familiar with the exodus from Eastern Europe into the United States, but did you know that thousands upon thousands found their “New Jerusalem” in Argentina? Facilitated by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association was created on September 11, 1891 with the intention of evacuating persecuted Jews from Imperial Russia. The J.C.A. worked in collaboration with the Argentine government by placing the immigrants in agricultural colonies throughout the rich, untapped land of the newly founded nation.
In Entre Ríos, there were over seventeen colonies, including Basavilbaso (Lucienville), Clara, Pedernal, and Villa Domínguez. In the province of Buenos Aires, there was Colonia Lapin, Carlos Casares and Rivera to name a few. Santa Fe was home of the most famous colony Moises Ville. Bernasconi (Narcisse Levin) was located in the province of La Pampa; and in the northern tip of the country, was Colonia Dora in Santiago del Estero.
Sembramos trigo y cosechamos doctores
We sow wheat and we reap doctors—that was the famous saying among the pioneers who toiled on the pampas, but birthed a new and hopeful generation of engineers, scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs.
La colectividad—the Jewish community in Argentina—is second only to the United States and it thanks to these unsung heroes, these Jewish gauchos. The colonists organized agricultural co-operatives. They built libraries, hospital, and charitable organizations. They built schools for their children to study both secular and religious programs. They built athletic organizations and impressive country clubs where families met for networking and socializing, challenging the most popular clubs of the American Borscht Belt. Their aspirations and achievements need to be heralded. Oh, and by the way, you would be remiss to think that these immigrants were all illiterate, wretched and downtrodden. Among their numbers were people of means and consequence who contributed not only their knowledge and funds, but a hearty spirit of perseverance and hope!
Not wanting to be accused of having a revisionist view of history, I can’t neglect to mention the hardships, the anti-Semitism and outright evil that Argentine Jews faced. And sometimes, it was at the hands of their own people.
A Polish organized crime group, the Zwi Migdal, established a holding in Buenos Aires as early as 1860. Their sole purpose was the trafficking of Central European Jewish women into forced prostitution. The organization was legally registered as the Warsaw Jewish Mutual Aid Society and they lured the women from their homes and families by promising a fresh start in a new country, away from economic strife and persecution. Desperate and hopeless, parents would send their daughters away thinking that they would be settled in proper Jewish homes as servants or taught some useful skill in a country that was at the cusp of becoming a leading nation. Often times, the harsh realities of their new lives began as soon as they boarded the ship.
In January 1919, for the duration of an entire “tragic week” (Semana Trágica), the Jewish community in Buenos Aires experienced a pogrom—physical violence and destruction of property on par with what many had experienced in the old country. At the time, the United States embassy reported that 1,500 people were killed, “mostly Russians and generally Jews.”
During the “Dirty War” era of 1976-1983, disproportionate numbers of Jewish students and professionals were victimized, kidnapped, tortured, or were simply made to “disappear” as a hard-right military regime attempted to control left-wing extremists fighting to create a Marxist stronghold.
In the 1990’s, both the Israeli embassy and the A.M.I.A. (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) buildings were bombed—allegedly by Hezbollah.
When I would ask my grandparents about the anti-Semitism they would say, “Yes, it exists, but we don’t allow it to define us.” Argentine Jews faced stifling and horrific events—comparable to what was experienced in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—nonetheless in many, important ways, their adopted country did indeed prove to be their “New Jerusalem.” There was heartache and hardship, of course, but my grandparents impressed upon me that there was no time to cry. They were too busy getting on with the business of living!
Admit it…you know the song. You’ve seen the play. Eva Peron is standing on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, arms stretched out—aching to embrace her enamored, spell-bound followers. But Argentina is more than the infamous—villainous—Perons. Argentina is more than futbol and Messi. Argentina is more than the guerilla leader, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. To me, Argentina is where my ancestors found their refuge. It is where knishes and empanadas shared a table. It is where the sweet sounds of the klezmer’s clarinet combined with the gaucho’s guitar; and later, the tanguero’s bandoneón. That is my Argentina and I want to share it with you.
Too often, we think of Russian Jews and imagine Tevye and his cohorts in Anetevka. There is nothing wrong with that—Sholem Aleichem was a beloved and brilliant teller of tales. I simply want to add to that narrative. Take the story of the Jewish gaucho and that romantic tanguero into your heart. Set them alongside the stories of Tevye and yourown ancestors, but remember: Do not cry!
An excerpt from Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey
Having traveled several miles deep in her own thoughts, Leah suddenly realized that the chatter and excitement, stemming from both the children and the adults, had decreased significantly. Turning her head ever so slightly to the right and then to the left, Leah witnessed the cause for the abrupt change in her family’s emotions. Lonely homesteads spotted the terrain. Farmland and open range was all one could see.
As if he could read their minds, Yosef called out from the head wagon. Cupping his hands around his lips, so that his voice would travel down the line he exclaimed, “Remember—we are free to come and go as we please. This is not the Pale of Settlement and there are no inspectors, revizors, or Okhrana!”
At that precise moment, Leah found Yosef’s astute observation very small comfort, indeed. Slow and steady, the oxen ambled on for what seemed an eternity before señor Lipinsky held up his hand, signaling the drivers to come to a stop. They had arrived.
The Abramovitz men jumped off the wagons and handed down the women and children. Dismayed, they stood solemnly in place and quietly took in their surroundings. A dilapidated wooden fence, in dire need of sanding and a new coat of paint, marked the property. As señor Lipinsky had promised, the lot and the dwelling appeared somewhat larger than those seen on the previous homesteads. León Goldfarb had mentioned that they would most likely have a cabin or a cottage, depending on their luck, along with a small barn and granary. His assumption had been correct.
“I cannot believe that we trekked across Mother Russia through Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean to end up here—to live like krepostnyye!” Naftali bellowed.
“We are not serfs, Brother. We will work the land for our own benefit—not for some nobleman,” replied Yosef. “And we will live in peace.”
“We might as well have gone to Siberia,” was Yaacov’s grim reply. “We are in the middle of nowhere.”
“‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill!’” Ysroel recited. “‘For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death’—does that sound familiar? We have not yet been here one full day!” exclaimed the pious brother. “Where is your faith?”
Malka nodded her agreement. “It is quite fitting that you quote Exodus, my son, for are we not the epitome of Israelites wandering in the desert? But the Lord will provide—of that I am sure!”
Señor Lipinsky cleared his throat and the men turned towards the agent. Aware that the Abramovitz family had begun their odyssey with a different plan in mind, he did not begrudge them their displeasure. He could only imagine the life they had led in Odessa in the upper stratums of Jewish society. It was quite a different scenario than the vast majority of colonists, but not completely unheard of. The agronomic engineer, Miguel Sajaroff and his brother-in-law, Doctor Noé Yarcho, were both learned men of means—certainly known and admired among the colonists. They, too, had come from rather illustrious origins.
Señor Lipinsky gently reminded the family that they were on the outskirts of town but, there wasindeed a thriving town–a Jewish town. The children would be required to attend public school in the morning; but the town was proud to boast of their own cheder, where Yiddish and religious studies were taught in the afternoons. The community had shops, a synagogue, a cemetery and a social hall. They would soon meet their neighbors and establish friendships with the criollos and the yiden alike.
“We—the Argentines and the Jews—live together in peace,” he said. “God has made it possible for us to make a good life here.”
“Of course, señor Lipinsky and we will do the same—may it be Hashem’s will,” replied Malka, as she turned and took in the full view of their new land. “Are these fruit trees? The orchard seems to have been abandoned, but with some work, we will have a bountiful harvest next year. This reminds me of when I was a child. It will be good for the kinder to get their hands into the dirt.”
“You most likely will find peach and plum trees. At home, we also have mango,” the land agent boasted.
“What is a mango?” Duvid asked. “May I try one?”
Señor Lipinsky laughed. “Yes, of course boychik! When you taste it, you will think it is a slice of heaven. Sweet and tangy, it is like biting into a peach and an orange at the same time.”
“Come now, children,” Malka said, as she marched to the door. “Let us enter our new home with uplifted spirits and gratitude in our hearts.”
With their mother and señor Lipinsky leading the way, the Abramovitz clan followed suit. Leah trailed behind. She willed herself not to turn around, but curiosity overruled. The gauchos were still there—hewas still there.
From atop his steed, El Moro removed his hat once more, and placed it over his heart. Knowing she owed him apology, she sunk into a deep curtsey, as if he were the Tsar himself. He laughed, not in a disparaging fashion, but with full appreciation of her good sportsmanship. He let out a triumphant holler, as the men turned their horses and raced away. Feeling herself blush, Leah laughed as well and quickly caught up with the family now entering their new lodgings.
Her mother, having removed her hat and gloves, was inspecting the building, which could not be compared to anything but the gardener’s cabin back home. Leah could see her mamá’s mind at work. She could only imagine the list of duties that soon would be imparted to each and every one. When she heard her mother speaking of chemical compounds, Leah began to understand the true magnitude of the undertaking.
“I will need a fair amount of the product, if we are to paint these walls and the fruit trees,” Malka informed the J.C.A. agent.
“Yes, of course,” Lipinsky replied, agreeing with the fine lady’s assessment. Many of the colonists applied whitewash to the trees in order to prevent sun scorching.
“My father was known to paint the entire tree trunk, not just the bottom portion, as he insisted that it kept the tree from blooming prematurely.”
“We are going to paint the trees?” Duvid asked.
“Yes, as well as the house,” said Malka. “If we can purchase a bit of blue dye—perhaps a local laundress might have a decent supply—we can color the calcimine and end up with a lovely shade of pale blue.”
“Lovely. It will be our very own Winter Palace,” added Leah in jest. Having only known the luxury of living on a grand estate, she hadn’t a clue of the benefits of whitewashing; and although she had enjoyed her lessons with watercolors, the idea of washing the grimy stone walls sounded exhausting. Noting the sarcasm in her own voice, Leah winced and waited for the certain rebuke. When none came, she decided it was in her best interest to pay attention to her mamá.
“We will cover the walls with this compound several times a year, my dears, for the coating has hygienic properties. Once we have added successive applications, layers of scale will build up on the roughhewn walls, and the flakes will fall off. Then it is simply a matter of sweeping away any remaining debris,” she said, running her finger along the wainscoting. You shall see…with fresh, clean paint, colorful curtains, and cheerful wildflowers on the table, we will feel quite at home.”
“It will be like visiting the country house!” shouted Duvid with delight.
“It will be better than visiting our dacha—we will be home.” replied Yosef.
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.