A couple of weeks ago I got an email from one of my regular readers telling me that she had just published her first novel, set in 1917 St. Thomas. The book is called “Transfer Day”, by Sophie Shiller. It is available as a digital download on Amazon Kindle for 99¢. I believe it is soon to be published in paperback. If you’ve got a spare buck, give it a read. I bought a copy right away and found it quite enjoyable.
Here’s the description from Amazon.com:
As World War I intensifies in Europe, a mysterious stranger washes ashore on a remote Caribbean island. Abigail Maduro, an orphan with little hope for the future, stumbles upon Erich Seibold who asks her for help. Defying convention and despite the danger involved, Abigail shelters the handsome, erudite foreigner, and an unusual friendship blossoms between the two unlikely allies. In time, Abigail discovers the truth, that Erich is really a deserter from a German U-boat. Although Erich insists that he deserted to avoid sinking any more passenger vessels, Abigail is wary about his true intentions in St. Thomas, a strategically-located island in the Danish West Indies that is the center of an unprecedented $25 million transfer to the United States. An unexpected twist of fate brings Erich's identity to the attention of the island's German Consul, Lothar Langsdorff, who blackmails Erich into serving the Fatherland. Langsdorff forces Erich to join his clandestine ship surveillance and supply organization by threatening to expose his desertion to his superiors in Berlin. Finally, in a desperate attempt to thwart the upcoming transfer of the islands and pave the way for a German invasion, Langsdorff orders Erich to shoot the governor to make it look like an uprising. Overnight, Erich becomes a wanted German spy. When he is apprehended and thrown into Fort Christian, Abigail must act quickly to save his life or risk losing him forever. But, as long as Langsdorff and his men are still on the loose, Abigail and Erich can never truly be free. A lively cast of characters, including colorful West Indian characters, German spy characters, Old World Danish characters, a witty Irish sailor and a headstrong and resourceful heroine will keep you at the edge of your seat. Transfer Day is a celebration of friendship, loyalty, second chances, and the power of the individual to change the world.
The first thing I noticed was the Acknowledgements at the beginning of the book. In addition to thanking friends and family, Sophie lists a host of archivists and experts that provided assistance in the research for the book. In it she lists archivists at NARA, several universities in the US and Denmark, military historians, German U-boat experts, Danish and West Indian experts, and people whose real-life stories contributed to developing characters and plot lines in the book. I’m sure the research itself would be an interesting topic.
The main character of the story is a 16-year-old girl named Abigail (Abby) Maduro who has to leave her home in Colon, Panama and go to live with her elderly aunt in Charlotte Amalie, months before Transfer Day and right before the US entry into World War I. What follows is an interesting mixture of action/adventure and island life.
What I think Sophie Shiller really accomplishes in the book is making the period come alive. For those of us whose ancestors lived there through Transfer Day, it allows us to walk down Kongens Gade, stay at the Grand Hotel, and meet people in Market Square, while battling the oppressive heat and watching the people go about their business a hundred years ago. The depth of her research is evident and I think it really adds to the enjoyment of the book.
One of the things I found most interesting were her vignettes with Abby’s elderly Aunt Esther and her two elderly household staff, Nana Jane and Cooky Betty. Sophie’s description of the the old island ladies, their bickering, their stubbornness, their need to know everyone’s business, and their genuine goodness and strength of character, rang completely true for me. Somehow, I think I know these women. My grandmother Olga Conrad was born in 1899 and all of her friends were around the same age. The first time I remember visiting St Croix was 1972. Just about everyone we met was around 70 and the old ladies then were exactly like the old ladies on Sophie's book in 1917. Some of them are still living there today, in their 90s, and they are still that way.
I corresponded with Sophie and she has graciously offered to share her experiences researching the book with us on a future post.
If you’ve read the book, leave a comment with your impressions. As I said, the author is a regular reader and I know she would love to hear what you think.