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 http://www.ackermanbooks.com.
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).