At last. THE SPY LOVER, my long-awaited U.S. Civil War novel will finally be published! I am happy to announce that it will be available on August 28, on Amazon. Being half Native-Hawaiian and living mostly in the islands, my novels and story collections have always been set in the Pacific, so a novel about the U.S Civil War is a brand new departure for me. Why such a radical change? Because THE SPY LOVER is based on my family history. A story waiting to be told.
My mother, Emma Kealoha Awa'awa Kanoho Houghtailing was a full-blooded Native Hawaiian, while my father, Braxton Bragg Davenport, was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Anglo-American from Talladega, Alabama. (So I am part-native, part-Southern redneck.) For years my Alabama cousins have urged me to write about our ancestor, Warren Rowan Davenport, a cavalryman who rode for the Confederacy in the Civil War with a famous unit known as the Prattville Dragoons, out of Prattville, Alabama.
They fought and died valiantly in the bloody battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Vicksburg and many other battles. Those who survived, including Warren, eventually served under General "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler, the indomitable Confederate cavalry leader who drove his men to many victories, in spite of being wounded repeatedly and having seventeen horses shot out from under him. ( Wheeler was only 5'4" tall, but he was called a giant in the saddle.)
Thus, I began my research on Warren Davenport, which would eventually entail reading over forty books on the Civil War. During this time, my Hawaiian cousins reminded me of our late Chinese uncle, Ayau Kam, Sr., who had often talked about HIS ancestor, John Tommy Kam, who had emigrated from Canton, China, to Hawaii, and finally to the East coast of the United States. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, he had enlisted at Staten Island, New York, as a fighting soldier with the Union Army, after being promised U.S. citizenship if the North won the War.
I had at my disposal old tattered correspondences and documents from Warren Davenport, but there was nothing in writing from John Tommy (who had dropped "Kam," perhaps to sound more American), only Uncle Ayau's vague stories of his ancestor, handed down through the generations, who had fought with the Union Army. But in the course of researching and writing THE SPY LOVER, I uncovered articles about Chinese soldiers who had fought in our Civil War.
Two of the articles were about John Tommy, from Canton, China, and Hawaii, a brave soldier who hardly spoke English, yet fought valiantly in many battles, including Gettysburg, saved comrades lives, was promoted to corporal, and imprisoned twice by the Confederates. Eventually I uncovered his war records, and the grounds at Gettysburg where he is buried among the 'unknowns' with his comrades of the famous New York Excelsior Brigade. I have even laid flowers there for him.
And so in my novel, his character was resurrected as Johnny Tom, who serves with the Union Army. And my ancestor, Warren Davenport, was resurrected as the Confederate cavalryman, Warren Rowan Petticomb. There is a third and pivotal character in the novel, a woman named Era, born out of my imagination. A beautiful part-Cherokee, part-Chinese woman who searches for her father, Johnny, in the carnage of war. Era is patterned on a nurse who tended Warren Davenport, after he was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh.
In his correspondence,s there were hints that the nurse, whom he fell in love with, had suddenly disappeared from the hospital where she was tending Confederate wounded. It had been rumored that she was a Union spy, and fled for fear of being detected. In the novel the character, Era, lured into spying for the North while searching for her father, becomes torn by her love for Warren Petticomb. Still, she is forced to flee.
Warren Davenport wrote of spending the post-War years searching for this nurse he loved, eventually following her trail across America and up into in the Pacific Northwest Territories where so many Chinese men and women fled to, during the Chinese Massacres of the 1870's and 80's. I do not know the ending of their story. So here, I took authorial license with the novel. I will not spoil it for readers.
Sometimes writers gets so entrenched in a book, so buried in great themes of war and love and loyalties, we lose our way. I did. So I fell back on research, digging and delving, looking for clues and answers. Research is seductive. You read and while away the days, the months, and ignore the half-finished novel palpitating in the dark. Years passed as I delved deeper, discovering aspects of the War that I hoped would fascinate readers. I read about Southern women collecting urine from which to distill niter for making gunpowder. And I read of the planting and harvesting of poppies, the scoring and gathering from poppy pods the sap known as opium. I researched how opium was dried and mixed with chemicals and pressed into powdered tablets for the Confederate wounded when the South ran out of medicine.
Next, I researched books on spy-codes used in the War, what spies were paid, and how they were executed when caught by the enemy. I researched the colloquialisms of the South, the vernacular of the mid-1800s, the language of prostitutes, and fighting men, and dying men. And on, and on. Now you know why THE SPY LOVER took five years to complete. In the end I forgot how to hold conversations, unless they were about the Civil War. I lived and breathed the War, it engulfed my life.
Eventually, I slogged my way back into the actual writing of the book, and scenes and characters became real, thanks to the research I had done. When I finally reached the end, I was then shackled through twenty-four mind-numbing rewrites of the novel. Every page. Every word. I worked and slept in a metaphorical sweatsuit. I dreamed of Shiloh and Chickamauga and woke in the dark, hearing wounded soldiers crying out. I wept for the women who were raped and slaughtered in that War, and for the brave nurses who perished from soldiers' diseases. And I wept for the wounded soldiers known as 'skins' - redskins, yellowskins, brownskins - who were carried last from the battlefields, then ignored and left to die unattended.
I never planned to write an historical novel, or a love story, or a spy thriller, or a story about how brave Chinese soldiers were used as throw-aways in the Civil War. I simply set out to tell the story of my ancestors, who fought on opposing sides of that War. But as the book grew bigger and deeper (at one point, 1200 pages) I felt less and less confident. I wasn't sure who I was writing for. There were days when I wondered if there would be ANY readers for the book. But there were better days, when I felt that the book would cause the RIGHT readers to materialize. Readers who cared about loyalty and love, moral choices, and redemption.
I even began to believe that THE SPY LOVER might alter the nerves and marrow of readers because of the naked horror of the War, the unfathomable sacrifices, brother slaughtering brother, the rampant racism, and inconceivable grief of women who were left to bury their dead. But mostly I wanted to believe that readers would hold the book to their hearts because the quality of the writing astonished them. Thus do authors live on illusions, believing that the book we are working on is the best thing we have ever written, and that possibly it will change people's lives. Writers are children, eternal dreamers. Dreams are our redemption.
I sincerely hope you enjoy THE SPY LOVER!