Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spy Island: The Inspiration Behind the Story

  Spy Island by Sophie Schiller is a Historical Novel set in the Danish West Indies. It tells the story of an adventurous young girl during WWI who rescues a German U-boat deserter and teams up with him to rid her tranquil island of a nest of German spies. The story takes place in the island of St. Thomas and is a gift to the people of the islands, the result of a promise I made to myself decades ago.
       
While I was growing up in St. Thomas, I was always obsessed with a single, nagging question:  Why aren't there more novels depicting the rich, vibrant history of the Danish West Indies and its colorful characters? After all, the islands have been praised for their beauty and natural wonder for centuries. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, possesses one of the most scenic natural harbors in the world. All a writer has to do for inspiration is gaze at her rolling green hills of tropical foliage, colorful array of exotic flowers, shimmering turquoise blue water, and the charming red-roofed houses that dot the hillsides.
           
Since no novel had yet been written that could satisfy my desire to read about and get lost in this fascinating world, I decided to write my own. Where to start?
           
The most momentous event to occur in this former Danish sugar colony was its 1917 sale and transfer to the United States in 1917, I decided to start there. Since this episode had never been tackled by any writer previously, I knew I would have to pave the road as I trod it. But in my imagination, this unique time in history presented a fertile field of possibilities for suspense, conflict, and drama. After all, it wasn't every day that a territory was transferred from one hand to another. It seemed only natural that the very act of being buying and selling a territory would introduce significant, uncomfortable changes for the islands' inhabitants.
           
I decided to tell the story through the eyes of a blossoming young woman. For purposes of cultural exoticism, I made her a member of St. Thomas' now-extinct Sephardic Jewish community. The island of St. Thomas is home to one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues in the Western Hemisphere. Located high on a steep hill behind the town is a cultural relic of a bygone era, an old synagogue that hearkened back to a time when tall-masted sailing ships ruled the seas, when the world hungered for sugar and spices, when ties to the past were stronger than ties to the present. That community of Spanish-Portuguese Jews no longer exists, but where did they go? Why did they just vanish? To write my story, I would have to answer that question.
           
When I was a child, one of the questions that had often swirled in my head concerned the ubiquitous island name Maduro. Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro. It's almost as common as Smith or Jones are in the States, even belonging to a certain popular Senator. But the name always struck me as unusual, odd even. Island names such as Maduro, Robles, De Castro, and Henriquez exist even today. They are exotic, having an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring to them.  But where did they come from? How did these West Indian natives of a former Danish colony wind up with Spanish-sounding names?  In my research, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th and 9th century immigrants whose roots spread all the way back to Holland, Portugal and Spain. This surprising discovery made my curiosity grow by leaps and bounds. 
           
The name Maduro was adopted by 16th century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland in order keep their Jewish identity intact. Later, these Spanish-Portuguese Jews crossed the Atlantic, settling in tolerant Dutch colonies like Suriname and in Dutch islands like Curaçao, Saba and St. Eustatius.  Later, on invitation of a Danish King, the Sephardim established an important trading colony in St. Thomas. Denmark is the only Nordic country to aspire to great maritime power and colonial expansion. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they acquired the three main islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to obtain precious metals, spices, sugar, tobacco, rum, cotton, indigo, ginger, cacao and coffee, and those Sephardic Jews played an important role in expanding Denmark's trading ambitions. However, due to natural disasters and the introduction of steamships at the end of the 19th century, the economy of the islands dwindled and those Sephardic Jews starting emigrating to other, more prosperous shores, such as Panama. I decided to focus on a young girl facing a life of spinsterhood as a result of this out-migration of available men, who faces the resulting turmoil and change from both the transferring of the islands and the First World War. In my next posting, I'll describe how I created my villain.
                       

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