Friday, June 26, 2020

That Which Survives

Janie Chang’s latest novel discusses many important topics—some familiar, some less so. One of the reasons I wanted to interview the author, in fact, was precisely because it approaches well-known territory from a new and interesting angle. On the surface, The Library of Legends is a book about war: the Japanese occupation of China in the years leading up to World War II, in particular. Beneath the surface, though, it touches on a much broader range of issues both personal and political.

The basic premise is simple. A university in Nanjing decides to evacuate its students to protect them from the advancing Japanese army. In their baggage, each of them carries a single volume of an ancient encyclopedia. Their assignment is to convey their individual volume to its destination, a thousand miles to the west—but also to read it along the way and master its contents. Because the encyclopedia encapsulates the folklore of their nation: its heritage.

On this foundation, Janie Chang deftly weaves together themes of friendship and treachery, a murder and an arrest, a love story spanning centuries, the bonds of mother and daughter, even the involvement of spiritual forces. It sounds like it couldn’t work, yet it does.

But most of all, this is a novel about literature and legends—about books, what their survival mean to us as individuals and as cultures. In the midst of today’s pandemic and unrest, which can seem so overwhelming, it is worth remembering that ours is not the first generation to face such crises, nor—barring some unimaginable catastrophe—will we be the last. So let us protect our own Library of Legends, the essence of our culture, for those future generations.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Perhaps in anticipation of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the armistice, or just the reality that the last survivors will not be with us much longer, World War II has dominated the genre of historical fiction for some time. But two years before Hitler’s aggression against Poland set off the conflagration in Europe, imperial Japan occupied China, capturing Shanghai and Nanjing before launching bombing forays westward.

In The Library of Legends, Janie Chang draws on family stories and ancient legends to weave a fact-based yet mystical tale about this period in China’s long history. The novel focuses on a group of university students evacuated from Nanjing as the Japanese army approaches. Eager to defend their cultural heritage, the students embrace the task assigned to them: safeguarding an encyclopedia of lore compiled during the early Ming dynasty five hundred years before.

Hu Lian, a scholarship recipient from a single-parent family, encounters Liu Shaoming and his enigmatic former servant, Sparrow Chen, just as the students are starting on their long and difficult journey west. Friendship, even romance, blossoms between Lian and Shao—a love she does not trust because he comes from a background far wealthier than her own. But after a communist student agitator is murdered and suspicion falls on another of Lian’s friends, it is Shao and Sparrow who support Lian as she leaves the convoy to search for her mother. Only on the road east does Lian realize that the volume of the Legends entrusted to her includes a tale that may illuminate not only the elusive connection between her traveling companions but the destiny of China itself.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Interview with Carolyn James

Although I mostly write historical fiction these days, I am still a historian specializing in the early modern period (1500–1800), especially Russia. And as you may have noticed, most of my novels revolve around political marriages: young men and women pushed into them or striving to avoid them while their elders bend heaven and earth to arrange them. So it is no surprise that when I heard about Carolyn James’ new study A Renaissance Marriage: The Political and Personal Alliance of Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, 1490–1519 (Oxford University Press, 2020), I wanted to know more—not least because this book is based on something that historians of Russia cannot count on until at least the 1700s: a decades-long correspondence between husband and wife.

As often happens with academic books, my first search resulted in sticker shock. But the advantage of reviewing books is that publishers often send them free of charge, so I pursued this angle. My initial plan to interview the author for New Books in History, another podcast channel on the New Books Network, foundered on the reality of a fifteen-hour time difference, so I persuaded the author (who was actually willing, bless her heart, to get up at the crack of dawn to talk with me) to answer written questions instead.

So read on. This is not exactly the world behind my Legends novels, although Juliana and Felix, in Song of the Siren, would definitely feel quite at home. But even at a distance of fifteen hundred miles, there are principles operating here that my characters would recognize. After all, the second wife of Ivan III of Russia, Sophia (Zoƫ) Paleologina, left Italy, where she had grown up, to marry him in 1472. And she brought with her not only scholars and diplomats but those artists and architects whose work we can still see in the Moscow Kremlin.

Not such a great gulf after all!

So tell us, who were Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga, and what do we most need to know about them?

Isabella d’Este (1474–1519) was the eldest child of Ercole d’Este, duke of Ferrara (r.1471–1505), and of the Neapolitan princess Eleonora d’Aragona (1450–1493). Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519) was heir to the neighboring marquisate of Mantua. The betrothal of Francesco and Isabella in 1480 continued a tradition whereby the Este and Gonzaga rulers married women from more illustrious families than their own. By doing so, they aimed to improve their bloodlines while bolstering their hold on power by forming alliances with major political dynasties. However, whereas in the previous two generations the Gonzaga had looked to Germany in their search for suitable brides for the future ruler, the third marquis, Federico Gonzaga, decided to strengthen relations with the neighboring duchy of Ferrara by agreeing to a match between his fourteen-year-old son, Francesco, and the duke’s six-year-old daughter, Isabella. The couple married in early 1490, after a decade-long betrothal.

Federico Gonzaga’s death in 1484 thrust Francesco into power at a young age. His mother had already died in 1479. During the remaining six years of the betrothal, Isabella’s parents encouraged their future son-in-law to spend long periods in Ferrara. They attempted to fill the emotional void that Francesco experienced in the aftermath of his parents’ death. The alliance between Ferrara and Mantua therefore became very close.

The political partnership of Isabella and Francesco was by no means unique. There were similar collaborations in earlier generations of their families. The duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora d’Aragona, supported her husband’s regime by taking charge of diplomatic relations with her Aragonese relatives and acting as Ercole d’Este’s occasional regent. Francesco’s mother, Margaret von Wittelsbach of Bavaria, and particularly his grandmother, Barbara of Brandenburg, who lived until 1481, also played important diplomatic and administrative roles. Isabella was carefully educated to ensure she would be able to do the same. The stark differences in literacy and levels of education between husband and wife that characterized most premodern marriages did not exist in that of Isabella and Francesco, or indeed in those of their immediate forebears. The letters exchanged by the couple show how well matched they were in terms of cultural sophistication and political acumen. My book explores the consequences of this parity in a marriage that was still subject to conventional notions about a husband’s absolute authority over his wife.

And what got you interested in them as subjects of your research? How did you discover their correspondence?

Scholars have long been aware of the existence of correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga. The late nineteenth-century archivist and antiquarian Alessandro Luzio used some of the couple’s letters in his many studies of Isabella, which characterized Francesco as a crude and violent soldier who did not deserve such a peerless wife. This exaggerated interpretation is not supported by the evidence.

The letters exchanged by Isabella and Francesco over the twenty-nine years of their marriage survive in many separate files of the Gonzaga archive. I became interested in the couple’s correspondence while I was working in the State Archive of Mantua on the Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti. He wrote a collection of biographies of famous women modeled on Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women). Boccaccio’s work, written in about 1360, focused on ancient classical heroines. In Gynevera de le clare donne (Ginevra among the Famous Women) Arienti wrote mostly about women near to his own time, many of them from Italy’s political dynasties. He sent Isabella d’Este a copy of his work in 1492. She was pleased by the gift, which showcased the virtue, political competence, and intelligence of women who, like her, were active in the public sphere. The biographies pushed back against an entrenched clerical tradition of misogyny, which insisted that the female sex was innately weak, prone to sin and unfit for political responsibilities of any kind. Arienti’s literary offering initiated a warm relationship with the marchioness in which she accepted him as a client who supplied her with regular political and other news that came his way in Bologna.

In searching for Isabella’s replies to Arienti’s letters, I became aware of the magnitude of her correspondence with Francesco. After a thorough search, I discovered that three thousand of the couple’s exchanges were extant, many of them in more than one copy. Outgoing letters were recorded before dispatch, and the originals were brought back by the couple’s secretaries for filing in the chancery once they had been read by the recipient. Thus almost the entire correspondence exists in one form or another—a very rare occurrence, even in modern times. It struck me that the letters were a unique record of the evolution of an elite marriage. The collection spoke of so many aspects of the couple’s lives and, although nearly all the letters were dictated to secretaries and were therefore not private documents, they nonetheless revealed an extraordinary range of the emotional currents that ran through this politically charged relationship and how those feelings changed over time.

Both Isabella and Francesco grew up in households where women played powerful political roles. For readers who may not expect that of Renaissance Europe, explain how that happened.

Isabella and Francesco came from families which had established their political dominance in the late medieval period through force of arms. The rulers of Mantua and Ferrara remained soldier-princes and earned much needed extra income by fighting as military captains for wealthier states such as the duchy of Milan and the republic of Venice. With economies that were mainly agriculturally based, taxation levied on crops, tithes paid by craft traversing the river Po, and imposts on commodities crossing their borders were simply not sufficient to fund the lavish courts and magnificent cultural patronage of the Este and Gonzaga princes.

The Gonzaga and Este rulers preferred to have their wives act as regents while they were on the battlefield, bitter experience having shown that male relatives were likely to use the temporary absences of the reigning prince to usurp power for themselves. A female consort had an investment in power devolving to her children and was therefore a far more trustworthy political lieutenant than a ruler’s younger brother or uncle.

Isabella, when she married, was fifteen, and Francesco a young man of twenty-three. How did that age difference affect the early years of their marriage?

The eight-year age difference that separated Isabella and Francesco would have been perceived by their contemporaries as unremarkable, indeed far less than the marital norm. In the republic of Florence, for example, it was common for forty-year-old men to marry girls of sixteen. Age difference between prospective partners was not a significant consideration for parents thinking about prospective matches, although the capacity of a woman to bear children was. Girls usually married when they reached physical maturity. The Gonzaga pressed for the wedding of Francesco and Isabella to take place when the latter was twelve. Eleonora refused to contemplate this possibility on the grounds that her daughter was too young and her health too delicate for such a profound change in her life. The duchess made various excuses to delay the wedding until Isabella was a few months short of sixteen. Even so, there is evidence that Isabella experienced the early phase of marriage as a physical and emotional trauma. She suffered acutely from homesickness and was terrified of becoming pregnant for fear of dying in childbirth, a fate she well knew took many young women to an early grave.

The Este and Gonzaga parents were proactive in trying to kindle love between their betrothed children. In the early years, the age gap between them yawned significantly, separating a coddled little girl from an adolescent man already sexually active and interested in vigorous outdoor sports. It took some years for the pair to bond after marriage, but eventually they did so.

Despite those initial difficulties, they succeeded in developing a functional political and personal partnership. What does their correspondence reveal about that process?

Although Isabella was slow to adapt to the emotional and procreative expectations of marriage, letters to Francesco show that she was far more forthcoming in embracing a political role. Francesco was pleased by her readiness to take on administrative duties and he gradually permitted her to help him more often.

The failure to produce a male heir during the first decade of marriage was a source of great anxiety for Isabella. Francesco was more relaxed, the birth of two daughters, the second of whom died in infancy, reassuring him that his wife was fertile and that a boy would eventually come along. The joy with which he greeted the birth of Federico in May 1500 suggests that he too may have been growing worried as the years rolled by with no heir to secure the Gonzaga succession.

The period between 1500 and 1506 were golden years in the couple’s relationship as their political collaboration prospered and their family grew. By 1508, they had produced eight children, although only six survived to become adults. Their correspondence documents the pleasure they took in bringing up their children, but also the satisfaction they took in working together politically. Against all the odds, the Gonzaga regime survived the early decades of the Italian Wars, an achievement due in no small part to canny strategizing by Francesco and Isabella who coordinated a campaign of double diplomacy to cultivate the protagonists of both sides of the conflicts.

In the end, though, they grew apart again. Why?

When their children were young, Francesco and Isabella had taken mutual delight in the joys of parenthood, especially savoring the satisfaction of having produced a male heir who in their view was both unusually intelligent and completely charming. The success of their biological collaboration was a source of comfort and pride in a period that witnessed a steady worsening of the Italian political scene. The couple cooperated cannily to deflect the dangers to the regime posed by the Italian Wars, with Francesco serving as a military commander during the early phase of the conflicts, and Isabella keeping the home fires burning with competence and persistence.

However, Francesco’s military career declined swiftly after 1508, when the symptoms of the Great Pox became so invasive and debilitating that, not only was he was unable to fight, but he had to retreat from public view by leaving his apartments in the Gonzaga castle to live in seclusion at a palace on the edge of the city. Here he was subjected to painful and ultimately futile treatments with only a small number of chancery bureaucrats to help him govern. It was Francesco’s secretary, Tolomeo Spagnoli, who now collaborated with him politically, not Isabella.

The couple had already experienced misunderstandings, and there were many earlier squabbles. However, Francesco’s isolation and the suffering imposed by his illness made him far more irritable and autocratic. Marital tensions became more frequent. During a brief period of remission in 1509, Francesco attempted to take to the battlefield in support of the French king, Louis XII. However, he was almost immediately captured and imprisoned by mercenaries in the employ of Venice. Isabella ruled Mantua during her husband’s captivity and negotiated doggedly for his release, which she secured by permitting the pope to take their ten-year-old son Federico into his care as guarantor of the pact that freed Francesco from captivity. Isabella expected to be able to build on the experience she had accumulated during the crisis created by her husband’s imprisonment in Venice. Instead, she was sidelined again. In the last years of the couple’s marriage, the marchioness spent long periods in Milan and Rome in protest at her political marginalization. Although she and Francesco occasionally recovered some of their former camaraderie in letter exchanges that expressed affection and sympathy for the other, the couple mostly lived separate lives. Cordial letters alone were not able to compensate for the lack of routine domestic contact that the couple had experienced when they lived in adjoining apartments within the Gonzaga castle.

What can we learn from their experience about political marriages more generally?

Political marriages were organized to cement strategic alliances, but the lack of consideration given to the personal compatibility of a prospective couple meant that the objectives of such unions were often not realized. Indeed, antipathy between a married couple could create serious diplomatic tensions between the regimes supposedly brought together by the union.

My book explores the ways in which the Gonzaga and Este parents attempted to foster amiable relations between their betrothed children in the long prelude to their marriage so the pair would eventually form a loving and cooperative bond. Francesco and Isabella continued the efforts of their parents and consciously strived to cultivate marital affection, especially through their shared enthusiasm for, and love of, their children. Few sources are as complete and richly evocative in revealing the internal dynamic of a premodern marital relationship as the correspondence between Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga.

And what of you? Does your new research project on the Italian Wars grow out of this one?

My current project does grow out of the study of the political and personal relationship of Isabella and Francesco, since all but four years of their marriage played out against the backdrop of the Italian Wars. This was a series of conflicts that began in 1494 with Charles VIII’s campaign to claim the kingdom of Naples from its Aragonese rulers and continued well beyond the end of the couple’s marriage in 1519. Francesco died that year from the Great Pox, likely contracted on the battlefield soon after the new disease appeared in Naples among French soldiers in the mid-1490s. It spread rapidly throughout Italy and then Europe. Francesco’s life was blighted by the disease, which at its worst rendered him an invalid, racked by intolerable pain and disfigured by disgusting open wounds.

The project on the Italian Wars examines not so much the military aspects of the conflicts which have been much studied, but rather their social, cultural, and political impact. The extreme violence experienced by the populations of Italy’s city states at the hands of the multiethnic mercenaries and their French and Spanish leaders was traumatizing for societies used to the idea that they could control their own political fate. The trophies of war that were ransacked from Italian cities, especially during the infamous sack of Rome in 1527, transported the fruits of the Italian Renaissance to many other parts of Europe, where they profoundly influenced local artistic and cultural traditions.

The political role that Isabella played during the first two decades of the conflicts, which saw the Gonzaga regime vulnerable to attack, especially after Francesco was taken prisoner by the Venetians and imprisoned for a year in 1509, was partly the result of extraordinary circumstances. However, similar crises thrust other elite women into major diplomatic and political roles. The project seeks to examine some of the themes of A Renaissance Marriage over a longer time frame and in various political contexts, not just in Italy but in Europe more generally.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Carolyn James is Cassamarca Associate Professor in the School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies at Monash University, Australia. She has edited the letters of the fifteenth-century Bolognese literary figure Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti and analyzed his literary works. With Antonio Pagliaro, she translated the late medieval letters of Margherita Datini. She has written on women's political and diplomatic roles in Renaissance Italy, as well as early modern women's relationship with letter-writing. She is presently engaged on a project focused on the Italian Wars, 1494–1559, with Professor Susan Broomhall and Dr Lisa Mansfield.

Images: Portrait of Francesco Gonzaga (n.d.); Isabella d'Este, by Titian (1535); Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, The Grand Captain after the Battle of Cerignola (Italian Wars, painted 1835)—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Interview with Sara Ackerman

Seventy years after the end of World War II, it’s amazing how many new angles on the war writers are still discovering. Sara Ackerman, author of Red Sky over Hawaii, published by MIRA just this week, already has two books set on the islands in 1944 and November 1941. Now she tackles the invasion of Pearl Harbor from the perspective of civilians caught up in the conflict. In the midst of war and under threat of detention, her characters band together to protect one another, with a little help from Hawaii’s spiritual forces.

I was delighted that Sara Ackerman agreed to answer my questions for this blog. Read on to find out more about what inspired her latest novel and where her literary journey will take her next.


This is your third novel set in Hawaii during World War II. What draws you to this time and place? 

The place is easy. Hawaii is my home and I have a deep love for these islands. I was born and raised here and grew up on my grandparents’ stories of life during the war—from picking up hitchhiking marines with their lion, Roscoe, to nearly getting shot for being on the street at night, to housing homesick soldiers on weekends. Hawaii is the only state where war was literally on our doorstep. Many people view Hawaii purely as a sunny vacation spot, but we are so much more than beaches and coconut trees. As for the time period, it just happened that way. After Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, my publisher kept asking for more. Now I’m almost done writing Book 4, and there will be a fifth!

What gave you the idea for Red Sky over Hawaii, specifically?

I’ll start with saying that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (the setting) is one of my favorite places. There is a vast and unearthly beauty there, and a very unique rainforest and ecosystem. I spend a lot of time exploring the backcountry and lava flows in the area. One day several years ago, I came upon a rustic old house tucked away in a remote part of the park. You would never even know it’s there. Needless to say, I was intrigued. When I dug deeper and found the house was originally built as a hideaway house in 1941 in case of a Japanese invasion, I knew I had to write a book about it someday. A year or so later, I met a woman who told me about her friend’s mother, who had been a little girl during the attack on Pearl Harbor and how her parents had been taken away and held for over a year by the FBI because they were German. I tracked down that story, which broke my heart, and decided I would merge the two and loosely base my story on them. Also, I’ve always been fascinated at how ordinary people band together during crises, and at the human capacity for resilience, so I wanted to explore this in my novel. 

Tell us about Lana Hitchcock, your main character. How would you characterize her as a person?

To me, Lana embodies a young woman at a turning point in her life. She’s already faced some major struggles and now, with her father gone and the war underway, she suddenly feels like she has lost everything. I enjoyed seeing how she evolved through the story and began to slowly realize her inner strength. I love how her relationships with the kids evolves over time, and they become a sort of makeshift family. She’s courageous and smart and funny and imaginative, and I wish I could hang out with her!

And what brings her to Hilo at this moment in her life?

A phone call from her ailing father.

Within a day or so of Lana’s arrival on Hilo, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Set the stage for us, please, as to what challenges she faces—and what she does about them.

Without giving much away, I’ll say that Lana arrives in Hilo and is quickly faced with her father’s German neighbors being hauled off by the FBI, leaving behind their two daughters and a Great Dane. She also knows that an old family friend, a Japanese fisherman, is in danger of being taken away—which would leave his teenage son alone. Armed with a cryptic map left by her late father, she has to decide how much she is willing to risk in order to help those in need.

The novel also contains elements of magic, which links Lana with Coco, the younger of the two German girls she is sheltering while their parents are in internment. What can you tell us about this plot thread?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a contemporary novel (not yet published) set at Volcano, which contains even more elements of magic. Red Sky over Hawaii is a sort of prequel, since it takes place in the same house and there is a familial connection. That is where the idea came from. I love magical realism, and if you’ve ever been to Volcano, you know it is quite an enchanting place. Stay tuned for more on that novel.

I can’t let you go without asking about Major Grant Bailey. Who is he, and what role does he play in your book?

All my books (so far) have love stories in them because I love a good love story. Who doesn’t? Grant is placed in a difficult situation because he gets to know Lana and the German girls, but he is also stationed at Kilauea Military Camp where detainees were held. I wanted to show the moral dilemmas that people faced at the time. For many folks, it wasn’t all black and white. Also, I live in the ranching town of Waimea, so I thought it would be fun to make him a cowboy. He’s my kind of guy! Manly and rugged but caring and sensitive, too.

Are you already working on something new?

I am! It’s currently called Radar Girls (titles have a tendency to change), and I’m very excited about it. The novel was inspired by true events of the Women’s Air Raid Defense (WARD), which was formed in the Hawaiian Islands by emergency Executive Order 9063 immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The brave women were sworn to secrecy and only told that they would be performing critical secret work for the army. More importantly, that they would be responsible for protecting their home and their country. Radar stations and command centers were formed on every island and staffed with local women, military wives, and recruits from the Mainland. Code name: Rascal.

I stumbled across their story while researching for The Lieutenant’s Nurse, and these women are my heroes! I was surprised I had never heard of them before. I should be finished with my first draft in a couple of weeks and it will release in late 2021. Publishing takes forever!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Sara Ackerman is the author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, The Lieutenant’s Nurse, and Red Sky over Hawaii. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. Find out more about her at

Images: View of Halema’uma’u from Jaggar Museum by S. Geiger, public domain courtesy of the US National Parks Service; portrait of Sara Ackerman by Tracy Wright-Corvo (used with publisher's permission).

Friday, June 5, 2020

Tragic Muse

Being the child of a celebrity is seldom easy. Actor, writer, musician, business executive, lawyer, doctor—the profession hardly matters. If authors who achieve public acclaim with their first book struggle to match their own earlier success, how much more must the child of a famous father or mother fight the inner and outer voices of comparison, the hidden disappointment of never measuring up?

Now imagine that your famous father is James Joyce, the author of Ulysses, a book widely banned in the English-speaking world at the time for its “filth” and “profanity”; that because of your parents’ desire to escape censure you have spent your childhood and youth in Italy and France; that you recognize you come a poor second to your older brother in your mother’s eyes; and that although you have managed to make a career and win praise for yourself as a modern dancer, when opportunity at last knocks on your door, you are horrified to learn that your parents have so little interest in your accomplishments that they expect you to drop everything to accompany them to Britain. When you resist, they guilt-trip you, pointing out that your father sees you as his Muse for the book described only as Work in Progress (known to us as Finnegan’s Wake), and his genius requires your sacrifice.

This is the situation Lucia Joyce faces in Annabel Abbs’s biographical novel The Joyce Girl, published in 2015 in the UK but reissued in the United States by William Morrow this past Tuesday. It is a tragic but riveting story of a young woman struggling to find her place in art and in love despite the demands of her family—a task complicated by her unerring ability to pick the wrong man. First Samuel Beckett (yes, the one who later wrote Waiting for Godot), then Alexander Calder (the painter), attract Lucia’s attention and desire, only to abandon her when she expresses her interest.

Other affairs end no better. By 1930, Lucia—still no more than twenty-three—supposedly exhibits signs of psychiatric disturbance, starting a long progression that includes treatment by the analyst Carl Jung, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and decades in mental hospitals that last until her death in 1982. But is she really insane, or is this just another example of “inappropriate” behavior by women being punished in the same crusade that swept up Zelda Fitzgerald and many others in the 1920s and 1930s?

I know what I think. I recommend that you read this taut and enthralling book and make up your own mind. Lucia’s life is history, available for anyone to discover. But as so often happens in good fiction, The Joyce Girl takes her rather sordid and unhappy past and shines a light on the family and the society in which she lives. And that’s what makes the novel such a gripping literary journey.

Image: James Joyce in 1918, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.