Thursday, December 29, 2016

Incorporating Voodoo in Historical Fiction

   Growing up in the '70's, Geoffrey Holder was a fixture on the TV set as the pitch man for 7-Up, the uncola. What most people don't realize is he was recreating a character he had brought to life in the James Bond thriller, Live and Let Die. Geoffrey Holder didn't have to do much to thrill me. All he had to do was smile his engaging, Cheshire cat smile, speak in his Trinidadian calypso accent, and doff his panama hat while sipping a 7 Up as if it was the elixir of the gods. I was even more mesmerized by his no-holds-barred performance as the villainous Voodoo witch doctor Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. The way he danced across the screen with his writhing, twisting movements so typical of West Indian performers I had grown up with in the Virgin Islands ignited in me a life-long fascination with the history and culture of the West Indies.

Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973).
Geoffrey Holder was the perfect foil for James Bond. While Bond reflected the posh, orderly world of Great Britain, Holder typified the exotic, mystical world of the Caribbean. His performance as Baron Samedi made such an impression on me that it continued to haunt me decades later. When I decided to write "Island on Fire", a novel about the eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique, I knew I had to include voodoo in the story. Even in the 21st century, voodoo is an inescapable part of life in the Caribbean. From Cuba to Haiti and down to Trinidad, black magic and superstition still affect day-to-day life. In Martinique, the discovery of ritualistic voodoo objects in the public square still makes headlines in local newspapers and is the source of much fear and anxiety among the population.

Even today, voodoo ritualistic objects can still be seen in Martinique.
I felt that any novel set in Martinique had to contain a voodoo theme. Quimbois, as voodoo is called in the French West Indies, has existed for centuries. I based my character, Gaston Faustin Jacquet, aka the Grand Zamy, on an actual voodoo sorcerer called the Gran-Zongle who terrorized the island in the 50's and '60's with his lethal brand of voodoo that allegedly killed up to 402 people. His killing rampage was finally put to an end when he committed suicide in 1965 due to remorse. The voodoo scenes in my novel are based on the work of two French investigative journalists who documented the practice of voodoo in the French West Indies in a shocking exposé. While my novel is fictional and the characters are products of my imagination, I based the techniques on eye-witness testimony. Please read a sample from "Island on Fire", where natural disaster, black magic, and political intrigue collide in a brand new work of historical fiction.

The Gran Zongle was a real voodoo quimboiseur in the 1960's who may have killed up to 402 people with his particularly lethal brand of black magic according to his suicide note.

Emilie found the shop easily. The sign read, “GASTON FAUTON JACQUET, HERBALIST AND HEALER.” After leaving the carriage, she collected her nerve, but all she could see was Sister Marie’s stern but loving face flashing before her eyes. She felt a pang of guilt in her stomach but pushed it away and continued with her plan.
Pushing open the door, she entered the shop. Almost immediately she spotted a handsome, well-dressed older gentleman with stern eyes, tufts of white hair, and an imposing presence sitting behind an imposing mahogany desk. He was writing in a ledger with neat, elegant script, but as soon as she entered, he fixed his eyes on her, as if sizing her up. She felt slightly uneasy, but browsed around the shop for a few minutes, pretending to peruse various objects. Bu when the pounding of her heart became too great, she turned and was halfway to the door when a deep voice called behind her: “Bonjour mam’selle, may I help you?”
Emilie stopped short, her heart pounding. Slowly, she turned and said, “Thank you, monsieur; I was just…ah…just looking.”
The gentleman invited her to continue browsing with a gracious smile that disarmed her. He was smooth in his manner and handsome enough to beguile her. She walked around the store with as much casualness as she could muster, as if browsing through the shop of a notorious voodoo witch doctor was the most natural thing in the world to do. From time to time she would catch him studying her while he pretended to be perusing his ledger books. He had an almost paternalistic quality about him, but he was suave and elegant to a fault. Although she couldn’t say for certain, she was sure the man behind the desk with the penetrating eyes and wizened face was the Grand Zamy. She had a strong intuition about it. Was this handsome, kindly gentleman the infamous quimboiseur who held the people of Martinique in his grip?
Emilie turned to meet his gaze. He smiled, showing a row of gleaming white teeth, yet there was nothing particularly friendly about his smile. As she continued browsing through the store, Monsieur Jacquet’s eyes followed her every move. But Emilie sensed another quality lurking beneath the surface. Whether it was cunning or deviousness she couldn’t say for sure. There was something haughty and domineering about him, as if he could see right through a person to his core and then use his cunning to control him.
The store was unlike any other Emilie had ever seen. There were rows of bottles filled with various contents such as scented oils, herbs, powders, bone fragments, dried insects, flowers, holy water, eau de cologne, roots, snakeskins, berries, nuts, and desiccated chicken feet. Each bottle was labeled with a yellowed parchment on which mysterious symbols were written that could have been Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Kabbalistic. There was also a large assortment of candles in various colors and sizes, talismans, crucifixes, charms, rosaries, statues of saints and African deities. On one wall there were pictures of saints with eyes that looked curiously alive. It was enough to make her skin crawl, but she had come too far to back down.
The Grand Zamy laid down his fountain pen. “Is there something I can do for you, mam’selle?”
“I uh—” Emilie froze.
He leaned forward and urged her to continue with a kindly, paternalistic voice.
“I…uh…need some help,” she said, feeling strangely awkward.
The Grand Zamy motioned toward a chair. “Please sit down, mam’selle. What is your name? Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you.”
Emilie slithered into the chair and met his gaze. His face looked so normal, so paternalistic, almost like a kindly grandfather. She could hardly believe this well-mannered gentleman was responsible for so much death and turmoil, most of which was only spoken about in hushed tones. She had heard a rumor from Victorine that his first wife went insane and was shut up in the lunatic asylum on the Rue Levassor, although no one knew for certain. She simply disappeared one day, and the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres who cared for the patients were notoriously tight-lipped about the patients. But Victorine’s face went grim when she told Emilie that no one had ever seen or heard from his wife again. But that was many years ago.  Most people had forgotten about her. No one knew precisely what went on inside the stone walls of the asylum, although some people claimed they heard screams in the night. Others told stories about restraining chairs and other forms of torture. Victorine said she had heard of people who were poisoned by him. And some who were turned into zombies. It was all terrifying to Emilie. Adding to the mystery, everywhere he went he was trailed by an alluring servant girl, even when he went to mass each morning. The exact nature of their relationship was always the subject of gossip and innuendo. Still, Emilie reasoned that this sinister character was her best chance for breaking free of Lucien.
“Bonjour, my name is Emilie Dujon and I have a problem.” As she spoke the Grand Zamy fixed his eyes on her, as if he was hypnotizing her. She shifted in her seat and continued, “You see, I’m engaged to a man who is unfaithful…” She paused for a moment to let that sink in. The Grand Zamy nodded, sphinxlike, and urged her to continue. “Since I no longer love him or wish to marry him, I must find a way to end our engagement without causing a scandal.”
The Grand Zamy leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “So, if I understand you correctly. You’re engaged to a man you do not wish to marry.”
“That is correct.”
The Grand Zamy regarded her through narrow slits. “Does this man love you?”
“Yes, I believe he does, in his own way.”
“But you don’t love him.”
Emilie shook her head. “No.”
“Then, mam’selle, you have a serious problem indeed.” The Grand Zamy closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, as if deep in concentration. “Let me think for a moment. Love, you see, is a powerful emotion. Once it takes hold it is very hard to uproot. But there are certain herbs that can help mitigate the situation, provided of course you use the correct mixture and in the correct dosage. Luckily for you I have great experience in these matters. As you can see I have a well-stocked laboratory.” He motioned toward the shelves with the assortment of bottles. “In addition, there are powerful incantations that can increase the effectiveness of the potion. I recently assisted a young man from the village of Pointe-Noir who fell in love with a young lady whose family objected to their engagement. They whisked her away to the other side of the island, which enraged him. He came to me in a state of great agitation, vowing revenge against anyone who would take away the love of his life.”
“What happened?” said Emilie.
The Grand Zamy gave a mysterious smile, like the Mona Lisa. “I don’t think you want to know the exact details of that case. Thankfully I solved the young man’s problem to his satisfaction, and in the end that’s all that counts, correct?” Emilie nodded. “The medicine I prescribe is tailor-made to suit each patient’s needs. It takes years of experience to know the correct formula and spells. That is the art of the herbalist. But it’s a mistake to think I alone hold full control over the outcome. At most I am only an intermediary. I ask the spirits to intervene on behalf of my clients. Some herbalists—my competitors, some of whom are quite unscrupulous—think the best approach is to simply eliminate the obstacle. But that is an extreme measure I rarely employ. First, let us consult the cards and see what they have to say.”
Standing up to his full height, the Grand Zamy lit the black candles on the chandelier and said, “Spirits, I invoke you, tell me how to solve this young woman’s problem.”
The black candles flickered for a moment and then mysteriously snuffed out. Taking out a deck of tarot cards, he shuffled them and asked her to cut them. He spread the cards out on his desk in the shape of a cross, then he turned them over one by one, studying them with great concentration. Finally he looked up and said, “You have recently discovered a painful truth, or perhaps you have been betrayed. You feel lost, isolated and alone. Perhaps you have seen your man in the arms of another woman. That is the Three of Swords. I see much anguish and despair. You feel as though you have been pushed to your limits and you’re going through a dark night of the soul. You are filled with worry and sadness. You lie awake all night worrying and fretting. That is the Nine of Swords.” He pointed to a card and gazed at her through narrowed eyes. “I sense you are experiencing an upheaval, a sudden change, or perhaps you have realized the truth about something. Something which was once hidden but has now been exposed. You are in a crisis. This is evidenced by the Tower card over here.” He pointed to a card that showed a tower that was struck by lightning and was in flames. Emilie shuddered at the sight of it. “And look here,” he pointed to another card. “This is the Nine of Pentacles. It represents a lady of refinement and grace. She does not seek the easy way out but learns to take matters into her own hands. She relies on herself to solve her own problems. This, mam’selle is you. You must learn to trust your own abilities. And do you see the Ace of Cups over here? This represents a new love or a fork in the road, a new path or a struggle between two choices. Beware of overconfidence and the danger of rushing in too soon. I see difficult times ahead of you. Great strife. I see a maiden, bound and blindfolded, surrounded by danger and unable to see her way out. She is overwhelmed. She feels trapped by her circumstances, lost and confused. This is the Eight of Swords. Don't look worried, Mam’selle, I am sure you will find your way out. Look here, there is a powerful, broad-shouldered man carrying a great burden. That is the Knight of Wands. He is confident and courageous. He carries the duty of responsibility on his shoulders. He will risk anything without fear. That card is a good sign. Finally, I see an awakening to a new and even greater challenge. I see a large goal ahead of you.” The Grand Zamy looked up from the cards. “Unfortunately, that is all I see. I believe your problem is not too severe and can be solved by a simple ritual and potion.”
“Are you sure?” said Emilie.
“I’ve dealt with much worse cases.”
“Are these potions dangerous? I mean, can they cause great harm?”
“My dear, anything can be harmful if applied in the incorrect dosage. That is why you must always consult with an expert. For ten francs I will prepare a powder that will calm your fiancé’s ardor cause him to break off your engagement. Perhaps it will set your destiny in motion. Have no fear that harm will come to him. I assure you the effects are not permanent.” He erupted in house-shaking laughter that sent a shiver up her spine.
With quivering hands, Emilie extracted ten francs from her purse and handed it over to the Grand Zamy. He placed the money in a strong box and locked it. He explained to her that she must take three strands of her hair and three strands of Lucien’s hair and wrap them up in a sheet of silk paper. Then she must go to the cemetery and stand at the edge of an open grave and recite the following incantation, Sator arepo, tenet opera, Rohas, Enam, Binah Jhedulah, Teburah, Jiphereth, Netzah, Hod, Jesode, Malrouth, Meschache, Obdenego! Come all to help me destroy the love that oppresses my heart! Emilie wrote down all the instructions, including the spell. The Grand Zamy continued, “Then, while still standing at the edge of the grave, you must light a candle and say, Good souls of purgatory, I entrust my love to you in order to let it fall asleep in the same way that you were plunged into your eternal sleep. So be it. As you recite the words, throw the silk paper with the hair into the grave.”
The Grand Zamy stood up and strode over to the wall. He selected an assortment of bottles containing various powders and herbs. After mixing them in a wooden bowl, he added some crushed beetles, a drop of lavender oil, and a bit of tafia. He poured the mixture into a vial which he sealed with a cork and handed to Emilie.
“Here you are, mam’selle,” he said. “This is the potion that will change your life. Now give me the young man’s name and date of birth.” She gave him the information. “Now listen very carefully. When he comes to visit, light a white candle in front of a mirror. Place the powder into a glass of punch and serve it to him. In a short while his behavior will start to change. He may seem a little intoxicated at first, perhaps even a little erratic, but he will soon ask for his ring back and your problem will be solved.”
“Is it that simple?” she asked.
Eyeing her, the Grand Zamy said, “For you, my dear, it is simple. For me it is a bit more complicated. I will recite the appropriate spells, perform sacrifices, and petition the spirits—that is the special task of the herbalist. I do not expect a fine lady to sacrifice a chicken.”
The Grand Zamy roared with laughter, causing Emilie to almost jump out of her seat. Clutching the vial, she raced out of the store.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Publishers Weekly Review of Transfer Day

I have chills. Back in 2008 when I set out to fulfill a childhood dream to write a book that would recreate the Danish colonial era of St. Thomas, the island of my youth, I was perhaps a little naive. After all, I had no idea the enormity and complexity of the task I was to undertake. But I persevered, I stuck to my guns, and along the way I had some major breakthroughs. I combed through records in the National Archives, I contacted people all over the world, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I made discoveries that shocked me; I learned so much about WWI history and how it affected even tiny, insignificant corners of the globe. In the end, I believe Transfer Day is a beautiful story that brings to life the Danish Colonial period, a part of history that both the Danes, the Americans, and the people of the Virgin Islands are in danger of losing. My rationale for doing this was: "since no one else had done it, I'll do it." I believed deeply that it had to be done. And so, I am truly grateful for this beautiful review from Publishers Weekly. I hope that with the weight of the most respected literary publication in the United States behind this project, more people will be able to discover this story and fall in love with the characters as I have. I dedicated Transfer Day to Mrs. Louise Brady, a beloved and revered St. Thomas educator who I count as a great influence in my life. I hope she would be proud of this book. Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed the book. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me. I love the history of these beautiful islands, and I hope more people will discover it in the pages of this book!

The 1917 transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States, which forestalled imperial Germany’s hopes to control strategically valuable ports during WWI, provides the background for Schiller’s engaging historical thriller. In 2001, journalist Søren Jensen, still grieving over the loss of his wife, travels from Copenhagen to the Virgin Islands to investigate a report that documents exist supporting the claim of Abigail Maduro to have “personally thwarted a German invasion” of the islands. Abigail recently died at the age of 101, and Søren meets her granddaughter, Claire Lehman, a possible new love interest (Claire’s eyes have “an inner fire, a boldness that resonated deep within him”). Claire gives Søren access to her ancestor’s diary, which details the teenage Abigail’s growth into self-sufficiency and her role in countering German espionage before the sale of the islands. Schiller deftly blends fact and fiction in a page-turner with emotional resonance. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Historical Novelist Goes Digging in Martinique

Heatstroke, exhaustion, motion sickness, insect bites, and having to be escorted off a mountain by gendarmes were just a few of the privations I suffered while researching my latest novel ISLAND ON FIRE on the island of Martinique. To be blunt, conditions were bad—constant 100° temperatures and 99% humidity—but the results MORE than made up for the hardships. What I discovered while exploring the destroyed city of St. Pierre were pieces of the past, evidence of lives suddenly cut short by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8th, 1902: a button, shards of pottery, broken porcelain, pieces of exploded bottles, the remnants of a flower pot, a destroyed tea set. The past comes back to life in a terrifying fashion in St. Pierre, Martinique.

An old button dug up near the Rue Levassor made of natural material, either horn, ivory, bone, or possibly even wood, carved from the tagua nut which was used extensively until WWI.

Until May 8th 1902 St. Pierre, Martinique was the most important cultural and administrative city in the French Antilles. It was completely destroyed when Mont Pelée erupted at approximately 8 am that morning, killing 30,000 people in 5 minutes. Today the city has been largely reclaimed, but it will never have the same vibrancy as it had during the turn of the last century.

St. Pierre today. Photo by Zinneke (from Wikimedia)
As I unearthed each item I was well aware that they once belonged to an individual, and that the object played some part in that person’s life. That's the poignancy of discovering the past: you have the chance to connect with someone who lived centuries ago and who died by a catastrophic act of nature. When I discovered that button or those shards of pottery, I was perhaps the first person in over 100 years to touch these items. That's sad given the fate of the people of St. Pierre. When they died they had no way of telling future generations their story. I consider that my mission. I went to St. Pierre in order to tell their story. 
A selfie taken in the ruins of "America's Pompeii".
Note the modern-day graffiti on the Roman-style columns are still doing the job they were designed to do, which is to provide a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below.
The graffiti says: "Madinina: Death" (Madinina is the old Carib name for Martinique.)

I call St. Pierre "the Pompeii of the Americas" because it resembles Pompeii by the cataclysmic nature in which the city was blotted off the face of the earth. Almost like an atomic bomb. The city and all its inhabitants were decimated by the release of the volcano's pyroclastic flows: the theater, the two cathedrals, the fort, the barracks, the jail, the hospital, the warehouses, the chamber of commerce, the lighthouses, the villas, the hotels, the fashionable stores, everything was reduced to rubble in the span of 5 minutes. It wasn't even a question of the citizens outrunning the lava, with the pyroclastic flows traveling at a rate of 500 mph (700 km/hr) and at temperatures of 1,830 degrees F (1000 degrees C) the people were asphyxiated immediately and incinerated within seconds. There was no chance of escape. Also called nuée ardente, a pyroclastic flow is a dense, destructive mass of very hot ash, lava fragments, and gases ejected explosively from a volcano and flowing downslope at great speed. It happened so fast, the residents of St. Pierre had no idea the end would be so violent yet so brief.

St. Pierre, Martinique before it was destroyed in a volcanic eruption.

As you meander through the ruins, only a few elements of the city’s former life are still visible: a few retaining walls, spigots, iron gates, the remains of fountains and staircases.

The remains of a public fountain located on the Rue Levassor built in 1850.

An old spigot is all that remain of a fresh water fountain in the mental asylum.

The damage was extraordinary, and what is even more surprising is that the ruins have been left largely untouched since 1902. The entire town is a vast archaeological dig. While there, I visited all the major sites where the action of my novel takes place. I would pick a location and dig down only several inches to see what the earth would reveal. In every single case I unearthed something from the past. I will take you on a virtual tour of this extraordinary town that was obliterated by a volcanic explosion, yet has managed to come back from the dead.

Shards of tiles that have been buried for more than 100 years.
The remains of the city engineer's building, on the Rue Levassor
Ruins of the fort cathedral on the north side of town.
The isolation chamber in the mental asylum
The ruins of the theater, probably what would have been the orchestra pit.
Remains of the mental asylum.

Inside a destroyed warehouse in the Figuier Quarter
On the Pont Roche, the oldest bridge in St. Pierre that is still being used for cars!
An inside look inside one of the isolation rooms in the mental asylum. This is a restraining chair. Built in 1839 as a public and private institute for the mentally insane, the asylum was one of the first in the world to offer hydrotherapy to its patients using water from the nearby Riviere Roxelane, and they even record some successful cases.
Standing in the ruins of the fort cathedral. People live in close proximity to the crumbling remains of old St. Pierre, as if having volcanic ruins in one's backyard is the most natural thing in the world.
Rue Mont au Ciel, in the fashionable mulatto quarter of St. Pierre. Until the 1990's this passageway was still covered with rubble from the eruption of 1902.
The fountain at the entrance of the St. Pierre theater, where the opening scene of my novel takes place.
The original cobblestoned Rue Levassor that runs parallel to the Riviere Roxelane, where I found so many artifacts. At the end of this street is where the mental asylum and the Engineering building are located.
The ruins of St. Pierre from 1902.
The ruins today. The biggest difference between today and then is the growth of new vegetation.

My adventure in St. Pierre left me exhilarated and humbled at the same time. It is breathtaking to stumble upon buried objects, yet so humbling to know these people died by an act of God so powerful, so terrifying, that only one person was left to tell the tale. If I learned anything from my experience, it is to never take anything for granted. Especially the gift of life. If a once-beautiful and thriving French town can be reduced to rubble in five minutes, it shows how fragile, precious, and fleeting life is. Perhaps that is the takeaway from St. Pierre: to live each day as if it is your last.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What are the qualities that make a love story unforgettable?

     When it comes to love stories, "The English Patient" is usually held up as a classic romance like “Gone with the Wind” or “Sleepless in Seattle.” But in truth, I found it to be tired, cliché and boring. This may be due to the fact that I didn’t connect on an emotional level with any of the characters. I found the Hungarian Count László de Almásy and the Englishwoman Katharine Clifton to be vain, selfish, and unredeemable characters, not noble or admirable in any way. And while some people would counter that by saying that Scarlett O’Hara was similarly vain and selfish, Scarlett also had other redeeming qualities, such as her Southern pride, her intense love of Tara, her plantation, and her refusal to give in to the Yankee invaders. The tired plot of “The English Patient”, which depicts an adulterous affair between a self-serving Hungarian Count and a married Englishwoman, lacks the requisite virtuousness to make me care about the characters and root for them. Much of this, in my opinion, has to do with their lack of redeeming qualities.

     So, if quality of character is paramount in making your audience care about your characters and love your story, does that mean you can extend this quality to stories don’t fall under the typical romance label? The answer is yes. Over the years I have found that the characters I admire most are honest, refreshing, natural, honorable, and in a word, HUMAN. The beauty of a love story is the way it depicts admirable characters that are admirable DESPITE their foibles and imperfections and maybe even BECAUSE of their foibles and imperfections. Love is such an intrinsically human emotion that the more imperfect a character is, the more we can root for him in his pursuit of a noble and virtuous cause. Think: Don Quixote de la Mancha.
In my opinion, Don Quijote has more redeeming qualities than Hungarian Count Laszlo de Almasy.
   While there are many different genres of love stories, from Western to Victorian to Regency to Contemporary to Swashbuckling, they don’t necessarily have to be the old-fashioned "boy meets girl" formula. A truly fabulous unorthodox love story can stand out by breaking down this powerful human emotion called love in an entirely new and refreshing way.

   Here are some classic examples of timeless love stories told in a unique fashion:

FINDING NEMO —a full-length cartoon that is a kind of "love story" between a father and a son (anthropomorphized as tropical fish).  When the son is captured by fishermen, the father embarks on an Odyssey to find him. An amazing story beautifully told with a sub-plot involving a romance of sorts between the Daddy Fish and a Lady Fish who he meets and befriends along the way. She is a quirky character with only short-term memory, but they cling to each other despite their imperfections.

LIFE AND NOTHING BUT (La vie et rien d'autre) —a French movie which explores an unacknowledged love between two people brought together by the misery of war. A wealthy French widow of the Great War is searching for her husband's body, dead or alive.  The major in charge of identifying the bodies is gruff and dispassionate, but in spite of the tragedy and hopelessness surrounding them, feelings between them emerge.  Amidst the ruin and shambles that is the aftermath of WWI these two disparate souls connect in a breathtakingly fresh and honest way.

EMMA’S SHADOW (Skyggen af Emma) —a kind of an offbeat "love story" between a 10-year old Danish girl and a sewer worker. When a young Danish girl is constantly ignored by her self-absorbed parents, she cooks up a plot to concoct her own kidnapping and runs away. After stumbling into a naïve sewer worker, she enlists his help by telling him a phony story about her noble Russian origins, and the sewer worker comes to care about her so much (and she for him when she sees how mistreated he is by everyone around him) that he risks his freedom to help her escape the “Bolsheviks” that are chasing her. In the end, she finds the love and caring that was so lacking in her previous life.

CINEMA PARADISO —a love story of sorts between an elderly projectionist and a fatherless young orphan.  When an Italian boy’s father fails to return from WWII, his mother is fraught with anxiety about how to pay the bills. Seeing her anguish, the old theater projectionist takes him on as an apprentice and a beautiful friendship ensues. Years later, after the boy grows up and leaves his small village, he learns how much the older man cared about him and wanted to see him happy.

DARK EYES —a love story between a married Italian man and a married Russian woman who meet in a spa. The Italian man has married above his station, rendering him useless and purposeless in life. But when he meets a beautiful and almost helpless Russian woman, he discovers his own latent courage that has been dormant inside of him to win her love and give his life new meaning and purpose. The story ends with a surprise twist that shows how important it is to seize chances when they are presented.

BRAVE —a love story of sorts between a young girl and her mother. Set in the Scottish Highlands, Brave depicts a princess named Merida from the clan of Dunbroch who rebels against her mother and her clan’s custom by refusing to marry any of the suitors selected for her.  After consulting a witch for help, Merida accidentally transforms her mother into a bear and Merida is distraught when she realizes how much she loves her mother and how close she is to losing her if the spell becomes permanent. 

Each of these movies depicts characters that are offbeat and quirky, and display abundant humanity in their respective quests. To me, that is the essence of a love story. The characters do not have to be perfect, they don’t have to be sanitized Hollywood stereotypes, they have to be real people who care deeply about one another, so much so that it shakes their world—and ours.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Preview: Island on Fire

Island oFire
In the lush, tropical world of Martinique in 1902, a planter's daughter and a French army officer are swept up in a whirlwind of voodoo, deceit, and treachery in the Pompeii of the Caribbean.
Coming in 2017

On the tranquil Caribbean island of Martinique all hell is about to break loose. 

In the lush, tropical world of Martinique where slavery 
is a distant memory and voodoo holds sway, Emilie Dujon, the daughter of a failing cocoa planter, discovers that fiancé has been unfaithful. Desperate to end her engagement, she elicits the aid of a notorious voodoo witchdoctor and is lured into a shadowy world of black magic and extortion. When the volcano known as Mont Pelée begins to rumble and spew out ash, she joins a scientific committee headed by Lt. Denis Rémy, an army officer with a mysterious past  who becomes her unlikely ally.

At the summit the explorers discover that a second crater has formed and the volcano appears to be on the verge of eruption. But when they try to warn the governor, he orders them to bury the evidence for fear of upsetting the upcoming election. As the volcano begins to show its fury, Emilie’s plantation is inundated and she disappears. As chaos erupts, Lt. Rémy deserts his post and sets off on a desperate quest to rescue Emilie. But with all roads blocked, can the lovers escape the doomed city of St. Pierre before it’s too late? 

Old map of Martinique 

Mount Pelee, the volcano responsible for the greatest volcanic disaster of the 20th century, and practically of all time.
The City of Saint-Pierre, also known as the Little Paris of the West Indies before the disaster of May, 1902 that would completely decimate the city as if from an atomic explosion.
Amedee Knight, an important political figure and businessman caught up in the whirlwind of the Mount Pelee tragedy.
A typical street scene in Saint-Pierre in the idyllic days of 1898 before the disaster.
May 7th, 1902: the volcano in full eruption. No one in the city was evacuated.
Dining Room of wealthy Creole house.
Professor Gaston Landes, teacher of biology and natural science at the lycee of Saint-Pierre. He was the most respected of the educated elite of Martinique, but even the study of volcanology was still in its infancy in 1902.
Martinique Beke family (blanc Creole) relaxing on their porch.
Creole Plantation Villa.
The Gran Zongle, one of the most feared Voodoo witch doctors in the history of Martinique. Voodoo is still very much alive in the Caribbean.
Martinique lady 1905.
French Colonial Soldier.
View of Saint-Pierre by Louis Gamain.
May 14th, 1902: finding the shocking and devastating remains of people incinerated by pyroclastic flows.
In the dungeon of Ludger Sylbaris (August Cyparis) one of the few people to survive the devastating eruption of May 8th, 1902