Brave Crossing: A Journey In-Between is a powerful epistolary immigrant story set during a turbulent and harrowing period of virulence, violence, and racism in the United States. It was also a wonderfully human story in which the main character Ricardo was challenged, blundered, and was redeemed—and that was what kept me reading far too late into the night.
I met the author, Maria Alvarez Stroud, at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference, and she agreed to answer a few questions for readers of this blog. Thank you, Maria!
JH: The main character follows the external signposts of your own father’s journey quite closely: they share a name as well as a path through university, medicine, and marriage. How closely would you say that the book hews to his internal journey?
MAS: Ahhh, I love this question. More than digging deep into the research of all of the major catastrophes, both in the Philippines and in the United States, I labored over what was going on within the heart and soul of the main character. More than anything, I wanted his journey to mirror what I believed my father went through.
The recognized historian of our Filipino clan helped immensely as he had known my father as a young boy. Visiting his hometown, Santa Cruz, as well as all the neighborhoods where he lived here in the United States was beneficial. I took long walks to literally imagine what it was like to walk in his shoes. Sometimes I’d find myself lost, far away from any planned destination. I talked with siblings, especially my brother who always said he was too much like our father. With every scene I tried to imagine what he felt, being alone in a foreign country, struggling to find his way, when so many obstacles stood before him. I won’t say it was easy, but I did the best I could to capture his internal journey.
JH: In a related question, how much did your father talk with you or anyone in your family about his early years in Chicago and the racial discrimination he faced?
MAS: He didn’t talk about those years hardly at all, which is why I had such a desire to discover what life in the early 1900s was like for a Filipino coming to America, especially to a city of 2 million+ with fewer than 300 Filipinos. There were bits and pieces he mentioned: like flunking English several times, and being assigned the only other non-white student as a lab partner. Knowing the circumstances he was living under, I relied on research and read any account I could get my hands on about what non-whites experienced, from Angel Island to the general public dance halls.
JH: Was there a real José (Ricardo’s friend who enlists to fight in the Great War)?
MAS: No, José was a fictional character based on research. There was one other Filipino attending the University of Chicago at the time Ricardo went, and there were Filipinos who fought in World War I. Knowing the University wasn’t that large at that time, it was highly likely they would have met and become friends. I took the liberty to have his future play out the way it did, to emphasize the sense of aloneness the character must have experienced and the plight of veterans of WWI.
JH: Though you did not write a romance, readers of my books will want to know lots more about Hazel. Anything you can share? (I did dig up an article, above, that described the scene: “They were married at 5 in the morning in a little church on a hill in Galesville, by a priest who left right after the ceremony for a funeral in Mineral Point.” Tell us more!)
MAS: From what I have heard from many of my siblings, as well as from my mother, it was love at first sight. Hazel was a second-generation Norwegian who grew up on a farm an hour away from the nursing school she attended and the hospital where she met Ricardo. Once she told me her favorite pet growing up was a baby lamb that she raised to an adult. My guess is that she had seen few darker-skinned people before she met Ricardo. Moreover, she was raised Protestant, and he a devoted Catholic.
JH: What has been the best part of writing Ricardo’s story?
MAS: Getting to know my father, the man behind the title, has been the best part. I wouldn’t have been able to even say this without doing all the research about his life growing up, the circumstances of his childhood, and what life was like as an immigrant in this country. It is an immigrant story after all, and a story of hope that is much needed today.
Thank you, Maria, and congratulations on your new release! Readers, Brave Crossing is out today, August 1st. Happy book birthday!
Content guidance: includes depictions of racism, colorism, and classism; suicide (off-page); infant mortality; death of mother; death of father; combat trauma; and epidemic disease. No significant sexual content. Note for my readers that this book is NOT a romance.
I’m so thrilled that Sugar Moon made this list from Joanna Shupe and Frolic. There are some amazing books on that list, and it is an honor to be included. The ones I’ve not yet read are now tops of my TBR.
The list celebrates Shupe’s latest release, The Heiress Hunt, featuring a tennis-playing heroine based on “Suzanne Lenglen, a Frenchwoman who dominated in the early 20th-century with her aggressive style of play,” as Shupe writes. “The unconventional Lenglen pioneered “sportswear” attire for women, drank cognac during her matches, and was unapologetic about her superior skills on the court. (Seriously, where is this woman’s biopic??!)” I’m game!
Shupe wrote why she had chosen each book for the list. Here’s what she said about Sugar Moon:
Set in the Philippines in the early 1900s, this richly layered romance is filled with vivid details of a location not often found in historical romance—including a historical baseball game! The hero, Ben, is suffering from what we now know as PTSD from the war, and he struggles with his self-worth. When he meets the fiercely independent schoolteacher Allegra, their chemistry turns this into a heart-tugging and wonderful journey of redemption.
Yes, that’s a proposal scene! There are two baseball scenes, both related to courtship, in Sugar Moon because Ben is a dedicated player—and fortunately his sister has already brought the game to the hacienda. Everyone comes out to see if Ben can win his lady’s hand with athletic prowess.
In addition to an extensive list of memoirs, biographies, and research texts on medical history that I have read for background research on Sugar Communion, I have also spent a lot of time walking the dog and listening to podcasts. Here’s a photo of Wile E. and me on the way to the trail, just because:
My heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, M.D., is one of many young women who became physicians or surgeons at the turn of the twentieth century. Many? Yeah! I mean, not a flood but enough to say that it was a viable career path for quite a few. In romance novels, the introduction of a female doctor character is often presented as something truly exceptional: “the only female physician in England,” one says, which is sorta lousy history. (Is it good marketing? I suppose so.) The aforementioned heroine was loosely based on the first female physician licensed in England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson—not counting James Barry, who was assigned female at birth. By 1876, the year this other novel takes place, Dr. Anderson was already training female doctors by the class-full in the medical school she had opened—women who could have applied for licensure just like hers. Also, Scotland not England was really the “scene of the first major attempt by British women to break into the exclusively male world of medicine.”
Women in the US probably had an easier road, with several coeducational and women’s medical schools existing in the Gilded Age, especially in the midwest. At the University of Michigan, for example, women made up a quarter of the class. The school turned out country doctors—a difficult, smelly career that these Gibson girls were welcome to try. Michigan was a better school than most, but in general medical education was not really stellar for either men or women. For example, there were no written examinations at Harvard Medical School at the beginning of the Gilded Age. None. In fact, that would have been impossible, one professor complained, because half of his students “could barely write.”
It was the improvement in the status of doctors that led conservative elements of American society to decide that medicine was not an appropriate career for women, often because a woman doctor would be taking a “good job” from a man. The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 is credited with creating the modern scientific medical school system in the US, but it also directly or indirectly caused the closure of many medical schools for women and African Americans. Those that had been coeducational reduced their admission of women, partly because they had a rise in male applicants. One study calls an unintended consequence of Flexner’s report “the near elimination of women in the physician workforce between 1910 and 1970.” It is the post-Gilded Age lack of women in medicine that makes us think that women have always been uniformly shut out of the field.
(Side note: Johns Hopkins, the model of a modern medical school for Mr. Flexner, only managed to operate because of the patronage of four women: Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, and Mary Gwinn. According to Johns Hopkins: “They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Reluctantly, the men agreed.” Unfortunately, the legendary founder of internal medicine at Hopkins, Dr. William Osler, was less enthusiastic about the role of women in the field, and the numbers of female students would dwindle before growing again decades later.)
My character Liddy needs to be a good doctor, yet one appropriate to her time period. I had to understand the world of medicine she was a part of. Better than studying it, I had to immerse myself in it. For that task, I did use some good books, but mostly I listened to podcasts. Let’s talk about a few of those:
I happened upon Bedside Roundsfirst and have since listened to every single episode. Dr. Adam Rodman is engaging and informative—so informative, in fact, that members of the American College of Physicians can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credit for just listening to these episodes and taking a quick quiz! But, trust me, we general listeners need not worry about the test, nor are we left behind. Dr. Rodman’s intention was to model his podcast on Radio Lab, and his delivery is just as compelling and digestible (health-related pun?) as that popular program. There were times when I did backtrack 15 seconds or so just to let some point wash over me a second time, but keep in mind that I was taking mental notes for my book. A casual listener can easily stay on pace, though Rodman doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. His presentations do have lighter moments but never get silly. Listening changes the way you view medicine, mostly by making you realize how young the field really is. (Note: The COVID-related episodes, including an in-depth treatment of previous coronaviruses and the 1918 flu, are very good.)
This podcast will kill you
Two immediate advantages of This Podcast Will Kill You are (1) the incredibly impressive epidemiologist-and-disease-ecologist-presenter-duo, Erin Welsh, Ph.D. and Erin Allmann Updyk, Ph.D.; and (2) the structure of each episode into separate segments on biology, history, and modern epidemiological issues related to each chosen disease. (They also have a Quarantini—or, if you prefer, a non-alcoholic Placeborita—for each episode, and this was before we were all quarantining.) “The Erins” (their label, though I prefer “Dr. Erins”) have just begun their fourth season, and that is a lot of episodes to catch up on, but you will be glad you did. Until I listened to TPWKY, I did not truly understand sickle cell disease, for example, or dengue—not even while I lived in the Philippines, which is embarrassing.
The Dr. Erins deal with diseases that other podcasts do not cover, like rinderpest, the bovine form of measles, which will have to be another glossary post on this blog because it comes up a few times in my books. (The Philippines lost 90% of their carabao population during the Philippine-American War period, which added greatly to the suffering of the people.) TPWKY also has episodes on cholera, malaria, and other diseases that have made an appearance in Under the Sugar Sun and, in particular, Tempting Hymn. Upcoming in Sugar Communion, TPWKY has been instrumental in my understanding of syphilis (don’t worry, I will stick to the chronotope), as well as smallpox and the history behind vaccines, aspirin, and caffeine. Relevant to the whole nineteenth and early twentieth century periods, there are episodes on typhoid fever and yellow fever and so much more! The more I listen, the more I love this podcast. I think they are having lots of (appropriate) fun too.
(Note: TPWKY also put out a series of excellent COVID episodes, as you might expect. They are broken down by different facets of the pandemic, along with a December 2020 update.)
the history of medicine
I have only listened to the first half of the first season of The History of Medicine podcast, but what I like about it is the deep dive into a narrative history of one big medical invention at a time. The first season is all about antibiotics—yay, penicillin! The show on plague (Yersinia pestis) is an excellent short backgrounder for all history teachers. A final advantage is that each episode here is very short. A possible disadvantage is that host and producer Kirby Gong is not a practicing physician—he only (ha!) has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—but, actually, I call his perspective an advantage. He investigates medical inventions in a more procedural way. This podcast is the lens of an engineer, and I find that fascinating.
this won’t hurt a bit
This Won’t Hurt a Bit was a lot of fun, but sadly you will quickly run out of episodes. The two ER physicians who are the main hosts here, Dr. Mel Herbert and Dr. Jess Mason, are so busy with saving lives and producing other educational modules for ER docs that they are not actively creating many new releases. (Note: They do have a few COVID episodes that I have not gotten to yet. I am more interested in everything non-COVID right now. Go figure.) Though these doctors are not exclusively focused on history, usually each episode touches upon the historical approach to a disease or treatment in some way. They also teach you a lot about being a good patient, including when you might want to go to a hospital yourself! Dave Mason, Jess’s non-MD husband, is also one of the hosts, and he provides banter and asks the questions you really wanted to know. What I appreciate about Dave, though, is that he is not entirely silly, and he does not derail Mel and Jess when they are delivering information. This podcast is very well produced and engineered, with additional asides and definitions that you appreciate not dread.
Sawbones is probably the most popular podcast of all the above, at least by the size of the live audiences that they have performed in front of (pre-quarantine days). This podcast is billed as “A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” and that is because the show is based around the relationship of the medical host, Dr. Sydnee McElroy, and the comic relief, her husband Justin McElroy. (And they published a book too!) Most of the background medical history research is done by Sydnee—or maybe I’m underestimating Justin?—and fortunately she brings her A-game. Her episode on hydrotherapy was quite useful for my research. Dr. McElroy is also living and practicing in Huntington, W.V., which is where my grandparents and aunt lived (and therefore I spent a lot of time growing up)—and I feel connected to the McElroys that way too. (Surprise, surprise, they have several COVID episodes that I have not listened to yet, and they have also done an important set of podcasts on the history of medical racism inspired by recent protests.)
[Edited to add: The most recent episode on “Physician Burnout” is essential listening for all of us, physicians and patients alike. If you work in another “helper” profession, there are many parallels you will relate to.]
[just added!] maintenance phase
Maintenance Phase, a podcast that bills itself as “Wellness & weight loss, debunked & decoded,” started as a friend’s recommendation. She suggested the “Olestra” episode because I have family members who were involved in that indigestible chapter of history. This show has quickly become one of my favorites for general listening, though. I am one of those people who have been constantly in one diet cult or another my whole life, and counterprogramming is a challenge. The hosts of this podcast are not just scientifically informed, they are so much fun to listen to. In terms of medical history, their “Snake Oil” episode is one of my absolute favorites.
[just added!] the curious clinicians
The Curious Clinicians is sometimes too much for me, the writer who had not taken biology since freshman year in high school. This podcast is hosted by doctors and lab researchers for a similar audience, and so they do not explain every term or concept for the non-biologists in the room, and I recommend that we humanities folk out here choose our episodes wisely—but not shy away altogether. One episode that is amazing for everyone, especially if you are a foodie, is: “Episode 9: Why is umami so delicious?” A runner-up is “Episode 4: Why did Van Gogh paint with so much yellow?” Currently, I am learning about how fevers are actually useful, which is why almost all animals and even plants use them to fight infections!
stuff you missed in history class
For a history podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class touches on medical topics a lot. There is even a good episode on the Flexner report, mentioned above. I think this is because the hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, show a real concern for the daily lives of past people. One of their other stand-out episodes for me was on the “Orphan Trains,” which is a footnote of history you might also see in Sugar Communion. [Update: I don’t know anymore. I have to do a lot of cutting.] There is a deep backlog that I plan to dive into once I’m finished with some of my medical questions.
the others you see on my player
There are more podcasts that I have not yet gotten around to, like the History Chicks, the Revisionist History podcast, and This Land. Other titles are related to my professional interests. I highly, highly recommend the first season of Blowbackabout the Iraq War. I do not think that I can say that enough times. There are other podcasts in my favorites that I have listened only to a few episodes of, like Casenotes. (Nope, not the true-crime podcast, but the medical history one. It is a fortnightly podcast from the Physicians’ Gallery at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Essentially it is just the audio of lectures given by doctors and epidemiologists for other highly-degreed people. It can be very good, depending on the speaker, but it is like listening to a conference, not a highly-produced podcast.)
You may have also noticed Book Thingo on my Stitcher account because it’s the best romance podcast out there, and I’m not just saying that because they were willing to talk to me. Kat Mayo is also the originator of the #UndressAndres hashtag, so I owe her a lot. [Edited to add: Did you know I was interviewed for a podcast on Balangiga too? Check it out!]
If you know of more stuff I should be listening to—especially anything relevant to Sugar Communion—please let me know. My dog always needs walking.
Resistance romance has gone global. It makes sense: idealists everywhere are being squashed under the steamroller of corporate and government interests. Women suffer silently in “toxic workplaces that reward mediocre men,” to quote Naya Llamas, the heroine of What Kind of Day. These women need their HEA, too.
Take note, though: there will be no alpha billionaire to save the damsel in distress here. The “damsel” in question, Naya, is not in distress. In outrage? In frustration? Those are closer to the mark. Naya would tell Mr. Billionaire to fuck right off, thank you very much. In fact, her “rage-quit” speech to her former boss (which sherecycles on a sitting Philippine senator!) would send a lesser man spiraling into his own mid-life crisis. Naya needs a fellow idealist hero with a hot bod and a quick mind. Enter Ben Chaco, Esquire: a former speechwriter for the aforementioned senator. Ben is in a mid-career crisis somewhat of his own making, but mostly not. And he has hot abs.
Naya has an “income-generating hobby” running boutique culture tours under the name of See This Manila. Naya’s video background has helped her carve out a presence online, and her customers pay a premium to be shown her favorite exhibits, the best sunsets, and the most unlikely ice skating shows. When stuck in Manila’s notorious traffic—which, yes, is really that bad—she dispenses “mentory” advice to her younger admirers (and to Ben, who has literally jumped into her van).
I loved the tour guide (and trip fling) theme of the book, and you do not even have to know Manila to appreciate the places she takes her customers. And, if you do know Manila, the book forces you to reconsider your view on the city.
Remember that Manila was once the “Pearl of the Orient,” and what has happened to it since is not entirely its fault. You knew there would be a historical aside to this review, didn’t you? Well, this is my blog, and I am a historian so deal with it. The Americans bombed the city to bits in 1945—the necessity of which is still debated—and they did not stick around long enough to rebuild it. Instead, they gave the Philippines its independence in 1946, on schedule, and left.
Mismanagement since 1946 is a long and political story, and this part of Naya’s struggle. She rage-quits her job in official tourism because she wants to show the real Manila to foreign heads-of-state:
“So I quit because I was deployed to do touristy videos during one of the summits. And I wanted to be assigned to Manila, because I thought it would be a good chance to show the inequality, what life is really like even on the days when they don’t hide the shit from delegates traveling from the airport to wherever. I thought if I did it with some compassion, and with help from the communities themselves, I’d be able to create something and the summit would be the right platform for it. Because that’s what it’s for, right?”
“Oh, God,” Ben said, realizing where this was going. “You had a dream, too.”
Yep, What Kind of Day is the story of two dreamers. It is quintessential Mina V. Esguerra—and yet it is also enough of a departure to justify a new series. Let’s start with the latter. According to the author’s website, Ms. Esguerra did not wish to redeem the anti-hero anymore. (But she does it so well! Love Your Frenemies is one of my absolute favorites of the Chic Manila series.) True to the author’s intentions, Naya and Ben are both uncompromisingly honest, good people throughout the book—and what a relief!
Of course, this is also exactly what makes the book fit into the MVE opus so well. Ms. Esguerra takes two people who have been burned—and burned by a similarly cruel aspect of the world—and helps them find each other. To me, this has the same feel as Iris After the Incident, which you probably know I loved. (Also, Iris is going to be released as an audiobook sometime in the near future. Yay!)
Okay, Jen, but what about the sex? The sex is also classically MVE: hot, memorable, and perfectly suited to the characters. It is a little odd to say “classically MVE” since Ms. Esguerra began by writing closed-door romance, but her recent books have all had very sensual, very imaginative love scenes. Naya and Ben’s first time could be a workshop in making consent and sex-positivity zing—which, frankly, I think is just the point in a book that is about fighting the Old Boys Network. It is perfect.
Finally, as with all the #romanceclass books I have read, What Kind of Day is a smart, fast-paced, beautifully-crafted novel. This book is both on brand and a trend-setter at the same time. I would recommend it to romance readers (M/F dual-POV with strong HFN), women’s fiction readers (strong growth arc in take-charge heroine), and general fiction readers (because, honestly, it’s just a freaking good book, no matter what you like to read). Enjoy!
Award-winning author Joanna Shupe writes the men of Edwardian era New York like no other. While some are born to the Knickerbocker Club set, others are self-made titans of industry. But whether they are from Five Points or Fifth Avenue, they are all swoon-worthy. In Mogul, one will battle a real historical injustice: the racist immigration laws of the late nineteenth century.
She never expected to find her former husband in an opium den.
Thus begins Mogul, Shupe’s last book in the Knickerbocker series.Calvin Cabot, the son of humble American missionaries in China, has grown up to become one of the most influential men in America. Even with his lucrative newspapers and powerful friends, though, can he find a way around one of the worst laws of the Gilded Age—the Chinese Exclusion Act—to reunite a friend’s family?
In this post, Joanna Shupe answers our questions about the Chinese Exclusion Act and how she came up with the idea to work such substantive history into the conflict of her novel.
What was the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how will it affect your characters?
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed into law by President Arthur, severely limited the ability of Chinese men and women to enter the United States. It’s the most restrictive immigration policy the U.S. has ever had to date and wasn’t repealed until the early 1940s.
So why were Chinese immigrants singled out? In the 19th century, America was undergoing a massive transformation. The Gold Rush and the railroad expansion led to the need for cheap labor, and many Chinese immigrants (mostly men) were able to find jobs here. Gradually, anti-Chinese sentiment increased, polarized by a few politicians who used the Chinese immigrants as excuses for why wages remained so low. Their solution was to call for the banning of any Chinese laborer, thereby freeing up those jobs for American workers.
Starting in 1882, no Chinese laborer could enter the United States—and it was nearly impossible to prove you weren’t a laborer. Only diplomatic officials and officers on business, along with their servants, were considered non-laborers, so the influx of Chinese immigrants came to a near standstill. They also tightened the rules for reentry once you left, which meant families were separated with little hope of ever reuniting.
How effective were the Chinese Exclusion Acts at excluding the Chinese? For the last half of the 1870s, immigration from China had averaged less than nine thousand a year. In 1881, nearly twelve thousand Chinese were admitted into the United States; a year later the number swelled to forty thousand. And then the gates swung shut. In 1884, only ten Chinese were officially allowed to enter this country. The next year, twenty-six.
— “An Alleged Wife: One Immigrant in the Chinese Exclusion Era” by Robert Barde, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Spring 2004, Vol. 36, No. 1.
Mogul is set in 1889, and circumstances have separated the hero’s best friend from his wife, who is still back in China. His best friend is African American, so they decide to tell politicians and the government that she is really the hero’s wife. This presents a problem when the hero falls in love with—and impetuously marries—the heroine of the story.
This sounds like a pretty sobering piece of history. What inspired you to use the Exclusion Act as a central plot line in Mogul?
I started with this idea that my hero would be discovered in an opium den in New York City, so that was where my research began. I didn’t remember the CEA from my history classes, so I was floored when I discovered it. It’s tragic and racist, and yet seems still so relevant today.
As romance novelists, we love to find conflict for our characters. I thought the CEA might be an interesting way to drive the story forward. I wanted to both highlight the xenophobia of the CEA and use the forced familial separation to craft the plot.
What kind of research did you need to do on the act itself and on the Chinese-American community in general? Do you have any sources that you recommend for students and researchers?
I read quite a bit online about the CEA and the effects of the legislation. The 19th century Chinese-American community was fascinating to research. A good friend of mine is Chinese-American, and I peppered her (as well as her family) with lots of questions about the language and culture. They were all very patient and helpful.
I used mostly archives of The New York Times for tidbits about Chinatown, opium, and the Tongs, which is how I saw a mention of the game fan tan and began researching that. As with most historical research, you can fall into a rabbit hole pretty easily because it’s all so fascinating.
In a genre that some claim is about “escapism,” did you encounter any resistance to using this real history as a conflict in your book—either from editors, publisher, or readers?
I didn’t receive any resistance about this storyline, per se, but I’ve had readers tell me that they won’t read any historical set in America. The reason given is they can’t “romanticize” it the way they can with British history.
While I understand what they’re saying—after all, we’ve lived and breathed American history in school since Kindergarten—I don’t agree. We can’t assume we know everything in our history so well that we can’t learn something new or enjoy a compelling story. There’s so much history that isn’t taught—or isn’t taught well—and looking into the past gives us the clearest view of where we are today.
The Gilded Age is one of our finest eras…but also one of our nation’s low points. In each of the Knickerbocker Club books, I’ve tried to highlight some of the issues and problems as well as the opulence and wealth.