History Ever After, Part II: The Problem of Chronotopes

In part one of History Ever After, I illustrated how bestselling historical romance is dominated by selectively accurate British peerage chronotopes, especially the Regency. So what, you ask? A good book is a good book. I agree: in moderation and with an audience who understands how this world has been fabricated, any reader can enjoy an exciting duke romance. I read everything.

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However, the aggregate impact of these chronotopes can be harmful to our understanding of history, to the romance market as a whole, and particularly to authors of diverse books.

Mirrors and Windows

A popular concept in the discussion of multicultural books is the question of whether fiction is meant to reflect one’s own identity and experiences, like a mirror, or provide insight into the identity and experiences of another. British peerage historical romance bestsellers are mirror texts for the dominant culture and windows text for readers of color. We need more of the reverse, too.

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This is not a new concept. In 1965 Nancy Larrick wrote up a study in which only 6.7% of children’s books had one or more African-American character. This was a problem for African-American children who could not see themselves in books as heroes, wizards, or just boys and girls. But Larrick saw another problem, too. She wrote that “the impact of all-white books upon . . . white children is probably even worse. . . . There seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.”

Ripped-Bodice-Diversity-Report-2016Fifty years on from Nancy Larrick’s study, we’re not doing any better in Romance, according to the Ripped Bodice’s State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report. Half of the publishers surveyed in 2016 had only 5% or fewer of their books written by people of color. While diverse books do exist, it is not enough—and too often they are published independently, without traditional backing or wide print distribution. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you publish only what is selling best now, then future bestsellers will be confined to this same limited chronotope—a vicious cycle. True to form, the numbers are worse in 2017 than in 2016: 10 out of 20 publishers surveyed had fewer books published by authors of color than the year before.

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Part of the problem is the lack of diversity WITHIN publishing. This 2015 Diversity Baseline Study by Lee & Low Books, a multicultural publisher that is minority-owned, illustrates the problem. These numbers do not include two of the Big Five publishers: Simon & Schuster (which includes Pocket Books) and HarperCollins (which includes romance behemoths Avon and Harlequin). Given the Ripped Bodice numbers, though, I cannot imagine their inclusion would make the industry more diverse, at least on the author side.

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Last year, Penguin UK announced the new company-wide goal for “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.” If American publishers tried this, they would need to target the following numbers, based on 2016 estimates by the United States Census Bureau: 61% white, 17% Latino, 13% Black, 6% Asian, 2.6% mixed race, 1.3% American Indian, and more. The numbers Lee & Low show us are far from such a representative target.

Everyone needs both mirror texts and window texts. We need them in different balances at different times in our lives, but we need both. We need diverse historical romance to be pushed with the same kind of institutional support that an Avon Regency duke book gets. Why isn’t that happening?

Misunderstanding History

Part of the reason is we misunderstand history. There is damage done when people believe that the chronotope is history. For example, if one only read the British peerage chronotopes, one might not know that people of color existed in Europe from Rome to the Middle Ages and beyond. Examples from art of the period not only proves this, but also that people of color existed at every level of society, too. Medieval Europeans discriminated more by class than race, a word they did not have.

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Images from the period, from left: Amazons, Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; Juriaen van Streeck, Still Life With Peaches and a Lemon Netherlands (c. 1650s), Oil on Canvas, 90.5 × 80 cm; Rosalba Carriera (Italy), Africa, (1673 – 1757); The Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry f. 193r: Exaltation of the Cross France (c. 1412) Illuminated Manuscript. All courtesy of the @medievalpoc account at Twitter.

And do not be fooled: people are getting their history from the genre. Bobbi Dumas wrote an article for NPR entitled “Don’t Know Much About History? Read A Romance.” She quoted Sabrina Jeffries as saying, “Everything I know about the personal cost of Waterloo, I learned from Regency-set historical romances.” Dumas also claimed that “Georgette Heyer wrote such a fine treatment of [Waterloo] in An Infamous Army that it ended up on a reading list for students at Sandhurst, the British military academy.” African-American author Beverly Jenkins calls her books “edutainment: entertainment and education,” which may be the most accurate way of putting it. “There’s no test on Friday,” she says, “so [the readers just] drink up the history. They just inhale it.”

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The Chinese School in Mott Street, New York, 1879, from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

But which history do readers inhale in bestselling chronotopes? One anonymous author in my survey reported:

I once was told to remove a secondary character who was Chinese-American from a book set in 19th century NYC because the editor believed having a character of Chinese descent in that time period and setting was anachronistic. It was in fact not—I could and did provide ample historical evidence of this—and I refused to change it because I believed not only did it damage the historical integrity of the work, but it also contributed to the white-washing of NYC history.

This editor should have known better. She or he may have even lived in New York. When people in control of publishing have such a warped impression of history by the books they have been the gatekeepers over, then we are in a terrible feedback loop of ignorance.

Perceived Accuracy as a Double Standard

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Perceived accuracy is a dangerous weapon, and it can hurt an author’s critical reception by people who should know better. Let me show you how this works.

In the AAR Top 100 romance novels process, there were no books by African-American authors on the original stage one voting lists. AAR rushed to change the stage one list after Twitter blew up, but they still left off the Romantic Times 2018 Book of the Year Award winner, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. I believe it is a particularly relevant example. First, AAR had the ambition to make such a list, so clearly they consider themselves an authority in the genre. Second, even before it became RT’s (last) Book of the Year, it was already a very, very highly praised book. An Extraordinary Union is the story of a free black woman who goes undercover as a slave in the American Confederacy to spy for the Union and falls for a white pro-Union spy she uncovers along the way. What an interesting story, you say. And outside the British peerage chronotope! So why did AAR omit it? Because they had given it a C.

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One of the reviewers questioned whether this book provided a “realistic depiction of the slave experience”? If it were realistic to the slave experience, there would be no happily-ever-after. There was no HEA for slaves. When history endangers the HEA, the HEA comes first because this is romance. It is usually a minor accommodation, as it was in this case. (For example, one reviewer claimed that the heroine Elle had “an awful lot of freedom” for her spying, but this same reviewer later stated that she would still have liked to see “more emphasis placed on the spy portions of the story.”) I should point out that Cole’s book was a very well researched piece of fiction loosely based on a real person, Mary Bowser. Its treatment of everyone—from black slaves to white Confederates—is highly nuanced and layered. It also includes a bibliography. [Edited to add: As pointed out in the Book Thingo podcast on romance lists, the real and harrowing risks Elle faced in her role as a slave were explicitly laid out in the book.]

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One month later, the same primary AAR reviewer blasted the historical flaws of a Regency duke book: “Ladies didn’t run amok unchaperoned in London, and dukes didn’t volunteer for the job without any prior introduction or connection to the lady in question.” She also wrote that “it’s awfully convenient how often [Max] breaks his own rules and finds himself alone with Sophie; and Sophie, country bumpkin, transforms into a sexually confident seductress.” The reviewer was “nevertheless charmed” and gave it a B. One reason this happened was because the Regency book was judged against a chronotope, not real history.chronotope-double-standard-historical-romanceThis is a double standard. Since there is not a pre-established model for diverse Civil War romance, An Extraordinary Union was compared to the inappropriate standard of historical fiction. No romance novel will stand for everything about slavery or the civil war. It can and should be a window into that history, but the world-building has to be done very explicitly to allow for a romance to develop between two characters and to make room for their HEA. Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series is immersed in extensive research, down to a pro-Union insurrection within the Confederacy—an understudied part of the Civil War—but critics need to allow Cole at least a portion of the same authorial agency that they give to Regency duke stories. Overall, this series is more accurate than much in the Regency chronotope.

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But be careful: historical world-building also opens an author to the criticism of including too much history in the romance. This was true for Through the Storm by Beverly Jenkins on AAR. Jenkins HAS to do this historical work because it is not a chronotope that the reader understands before page one. But, again, both Jenkins and Cole include bibliographies in the back of their books. How many Regency duke stories do? And yet it seems there is no way to win: these authors are criticized for too much history or too little history.

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This is not necessarily racism, but are the mirror texts of the dominant culture creating bias, nevertheless? AAR is not included in the diversity of reviewers study by Lee and Low Books, but I looked through their site. There seemed to be 2 reviewers of South Asian descent, maybe 3. I saw no African American representation, though there were a few reviewers under pseudonyms with no identifying details so I cannot be sure. I do know that AAR’s historical categories only include European and American settings. They have ”Indian Historical Romance,” but it is about First Nations (“American Indians”), not Indians from India.

I do not mean to pick on one review site—but, again, if you aspire to poll readers and rank romance novels, your reviews and ratings do matter. [Edited to add: based on inquiries from an AAR reviewer, I acknowledge that other review sites may not be more representative. I did not break down the ethnicity and race make-up of other romance review sites, like Dear Author or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the two the reviewer asked me about. The Lee & Low Books study (above) shows that lack of representation in published review journals (also asked about by the AAR reviewer) is a significant problem. I focused on AAR‘s reviews in this study because of the visibility of the Top 100 list and the bias issues in the survey process, a larger issue that I might have to take up in a separate post.]

Still, no single book, publisher, reviewer, or reader is the problem. The aggregate is the problem. In the aggregate, if authors writing diverse historical romance, particularly authors of color, are not getting traditional publishing support (which the Ripped Bodice statistics show), and they are not getting critical acclaim because of an unequal standard, then they will have a harder time finding their market. They could have a harder time being mainstream bestsellers. And then traditional publishers might say “those books don’t sell,” which is a way to obscure the fact that publishing has helped establish a market that is unfriendly to these books.

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They will be sorry. Pew Research found that the most likely person to pick up a book—in any genre and any publishing format—is a black woman who has been to college. Reading is an inclusive activity. Moreover, the younger the reader, the more likely she or he is to be non-white in the United States. Yet RWA’s own study of romance readers and their membership is significantly less diverse than the nation as a whole. Diversifying the books in the genre should be a matter of survival for the industry—as well as a matter of variety and accuracy.

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Is there some optimism from my survey of 336 historical romance readers that they are interested in fresh, new settings outside the British peerage chronotope? If we assume the readers who answered these questions were at least as white as the United States as a whole (61%), then many white readers also want diverse books.

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Romance is a commercial industry, and readers can choose to read as they wish. But do they understand that their Regency dukes are a fabricated chronotope? More importantly, do industry professionals realize it? If they focus only on current bestselling trends, they will crowd out other books, alienate future readers, and weaken the industry itself by making it less elastic.

Change is happening fast. Vested interests are facing a challenge in one of the most money-dominated industries in America: politics. On 28 June 2018, the 28-year old Bronx hometown hero Ocasio-Cortez handed a primary defeat to the 4th ranking Democrat, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and ten-term incumbent in the US House of Representatives, Joe Crowley—a white man. This is how fast markets can change. Ocasio-Cortez had no corporate donations and 1/16th the funding. And the New York Times missed it.

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Similarly, will New York publishing houses miss a similarly sudden shift in historical romance readership? If they do, we need to help each other find books that are a little different: set somewhere else, with more political plot lines, or with broader character representation. Help me crowd-source these lists on Goodreads so we can find the historical romances we need for the 21st century:

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(To go back to the History Ever After content page and find the handout flyer, click here.)

What Kind of Day: Resistance romance gone global

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.

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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 she recycles 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).Location-9-Intramuros

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.

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The destruction of the old Spanish walled city of Manila, or Intramuros, after the Battle of Manila, 1945. Uncredited photographer from the Office of the Surgeon General.

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.

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Sunset along Roxas Boulevard in downtown Manila. Photograph by Rolandave Bola used under Creative Commons License 2.0

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!

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Featured image is a trilogy of sorts: Iris After the Incident builds upon characters introduced in Love Your Frenemies, which builds upon a character you love to hate in My Imaginary Ex (that is also in this three-book set).

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!

Some updates on History Ever After

For a moment there, I wondered if I was getting to Sydney for IASPR at all. One of the legs of my journey was canceled, and it took two international calls to clear up the mess. (I think I’ve done it…we’ll see if I actually board a plane). When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: “Gee, I would rather put the finishing touches on my History Ever After talk than grade those thirty-six exam essays waiting for me.”

(I would have probably also opted to fold laundry, clean out the fridge, and even scour the shower if any of those would get me out of grading. I feel bad about this reluctance because I teach really great students, and I love to see them succeed. But staring at such a large pile is disheartening.)

In any case, I procrastinated a few hours and updated the data on my slides. The last time I posted about my research, I only had about three months worth of market data to crunch. Now I have six. The results have not changed so much, even as Twitter has been alight with criticism of the lack of diversity in romance in general and historical romance specifically. But I should not get ahead of myself.

The dynamic duo of Regency and Victorian romance still dominates the industry. Of the historical romances that make the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles bestseller lists, 63% are set in 19th century Britain. And among online retailers, dukes are like kings:

peerage-book-titles-historical-romanceWith the royal wedding this past month, I understand the appeal of the royalty-slash-nobility happily ever after—though this wedding was far more inclusive and kick-ass than any Heyer book, I dare say. (While I am thinking of the wedding, let me give a shout out to my good friend Andres for bringing me a commemorative tin of shortbread. I may have been a little excited—ahem—when I received it. However, that “best by” date sticker has me confounded. I mean, really? The tin is what I want. That doesn’t expire. Who the heck cares about the shortbread?)

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Anyway, I get it. I really do. But that still does not explain why dukes/duchesses appear in the titles of a third of the Amazon Regency and Amazon Victorian Top 20! (See the above slide.) About the same number of historical romance novel finalists in the 2018 RITAs have duke or duchess in the title. Not in the book; in the title!

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The New York Times Review of Books just put out a Summer Romance Reads list. The Review‘s new romance columnist (yes, they learned to ask someone who actually reads romance to write about romance) indicates a fresh trend: poking a stick at the genre’s “reliance on aristocracy.” I would have cheered this news loudly if it were not for the fact that 3 of 4 historical romance novels mentioned have peerage or peerage-adjacent heroes (2 duke offspring—one illegitimate—and a marquess).New-York-Times-romance-recommendations-summer-2018I have no doubt these books are great, and I look forward to reading them. I love all four histrom authors featured, and I have even interviewed Joanna Shupe on this very blog! And a few of these books challenge the chronotope in different ways—for example, Cat Sebastian has written a bisexual marquess and a nonbinary love interest. Cool!

But I want commoner heroes and heroines who make things, heal diseases, and run businesses—and they did in history. Women did, too. The Times book reviewer writes: “In Regency England, the space [strong women] can eke is usually tiny, the size of a marriage and no more. Sure, there are outliers, but authors can only stretch historical constraints so far.” First of all, give me those outliers. Outliers make the best fiction! Second, this is true only as the Victorian era restricted women’s rights from what they had enjoyed before. So why do we love the 19th century so much?

Despite all these facts above, there are still strong women who made history, no matter the odds against them. And we might expand our understanding of women’s work to include the many household management and childrearing tasks that women had extensive control over. And you did see women in professional fields, such as education and health care. There are interesting stories out there.

And I do want to read all four of the historicals on the Times‘s review. The problem is not them, or any individual book. Any book is great if it is a good story well told. The problem is the effect of the aggregate. The overreliance on two chronotopes—19th century Britain (especially peerage heroes) and medieval England/Scotland—may distort readers’ view of history and make the market less friendly to diverse books and authors. This is a theme I will expand upon late this month in my recap of my talk, History Ever After. Stay tuned.

Sugar Sun series location #13: Catbalogan

Catbalogan means “an everlasting place of safety,” and for hundreds of years it was safe—for pirates. The sheltered bayside harbor lies just north of the San Juanico Strait between Samar and Leyte, a key access point to the Pacific Ocean and the primary shipping route for the Spanish galleons. Since these vessels were headed to Manila with silver and then back to Acapulco with a hold full of porcelain and spices, they were ripe targets for pirates, right? And by “pirates” I mean the English and the Dutch privateers, who were licensed by their sovereigns to interdict and steal the Spanish bounty. Catbalogan became a haven for pirates and privateers, their crews, and lost sailors.

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The southern mouth of the San Juanico Strait is right near Tacloban. Start there and follow the curve north and west into the bay above Leyte. The strait is 38 kilometers long and, at its narrowest point, 2 kilometers wide.

The Americans would find the city no easier to manage in the early twentieth century. For the first year of the Philippine-American War, the Yanks mostly ignored Samar because they had their hands full in Luzon. But then, in January 1900, gunships arrived offshore Catbalogan and sent a messenger to General Vicente Lukban, the Philippine revolutionary in charge of Samar and Leyte. The Americans wanted to negotiate a surrender of the whole island by offering Lukban the governorship of Samar. But Lukban wanted more than a title; he wanted full local autonomy. The Americans refused, so Lukban forbade them from landing. In turn, the Americans began to bombard the town. In other words, things escalated fast. Unable to withstand the US Navy’s firepower, Lukban and many of the locals abandoned Catbalogan, burning it as they retreated.

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USS Vicksburg sailors led by Lieutenant Henry V. Butler (later rear admiral) burning a village in Samar, October 1901. Photo courtesy of Arnaldo Dumindin and his excellent website on the Philippine-American War.

What followed was a ruthless two-year war to subdue the revolutionary forces in Samar. Company C of the Ninth Infantry was stationed to Balangiga to prevent Lukban’s men from using the southern port to import arms and supplies. On its own accord, the town ambushed the garrison in September 1901, and the American military took revenge on all of Samar. General Jacob Smith (known in the press as “Hell-Roaring Jake”) vowed to make the island a “howling wilderness.” Dusting off a legal gem from the American Civil War known as General Order 100, the Americans aimed to starve, burn out, torture, and kill as many guerrillas as possible. Catbalogan and Tacloban (Leyte) were the centers of American authority in this period.

General Smith’s “short, severe war” was both. But one might argue that it prompted the April 1902 surrender of Lukban’s forces in a grand ceremony in Catbalogan. (Lukban himself had already been captured.)

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Those surrendering had to turn over their rifles captured from Balangiga the previous year and pledge loyalty to the United States, but then they were freed. Lukban himself would become mayor of the Tabayas province (now Quezon) within ten years. This begs the question of whether it was the severity of the fight or the quality of the peace that pacified the countryside? Amnesty is not used much in America’s modern war playbook, and I wonder if this is an oversight.

There is an interesting fashion note worth mentioning: the Americans did loan the revolutionaries a few Singer sewing machines so they could surrender in style with new (and complete) uniforms. Pride was salvaged all around.

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This is not the end of the story, though. This first war—including the destruction of half the municipalities in Samar and the burning of tens of thousands of tons of rice—caused a lingering famine and sparked another war two years later. Today, we call this phenomenon “blowback.” The Pulahan War was both a civil war (inland highlanders against lowland merchants and farmers) and an anti-American insurrection. On the American side, it was fought by the Philippine Constabulary, Third District—a civil police force organized, funded, equipped (not well), and trained by Americans (usually former soldiers). And by the 39th Philippine Scouts, trained and equipped (with better rifles) by the US Army. Both these units had significant troop presences in Catbalogan, along with the 6th, 12th, and 21st U.S. Infantries.

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The 39th Company, Philippine Scouts, stands at present arms outside their barracks in Catbalogan, Samar. Both photos (above and below) courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Philippine Scouts Scott Slaten by Jennifer Hallock Sugar Moon

Catbalogan was a highly fortified town, but it was still beautiful. The ring of mountains separating it from the suffering of the rest of Samar did make for a stunning backdrop.

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Colorized vintage postcard of a steamer coming into to dock at Catbalogan, Samar, Philippines. Scan courtesy of Scott Slaten of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

The city fared better than the rest of Samar through the lean times, too. Though the galleons no longer journeyed back and forth to Spain, Catbalogan was a center of the abaca trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the large buildings and church. Abaca, also called Manila hemp, was in high demand as naval cordage. Its trade was dominated by ethnic Chinese and British merchants, and once Samar was no longer in ashes, the fiber would revive and bring an influx of capital to Catbalogan.

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Filipinos making rope. This photograph shows the hemp as it comes from the leaves and is put on the spool for winding. Courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.
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Vintage postcard of Samar with a view of the wooden causeway connecting town to the port. Scanned image of the early 20th-century card by Leo D. Cloma.

In the early twentieth century, Americans complained about the lack of poultry, eggs, and fruit in Catbalogan. (I find the fruit claim hard to believe.) They also complained about the lack of dedicated school buildings—not one in the whole town—and the lack of teachers. (Whose fault is that?) And they complained that there were only five miles of road on the whole island. (But how far were civilians likely to travel, anyway?) I traveled to Samar in 2005—and though I would not recommend December for your trip because of the rain, I loved it. The island is just as breathtaking as the postcards from 100 years ago.

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Another view of the coast and causeway from the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bureau of Public Works.

Ben Potter of the Ninth

A week ago, I re-introduced you to Allegra Alazas, the heroine of the upcoming Sugar Moon. She already has a fan club because she stole every scene she could in Under the Sugar Sun.

Her hero (or anti-hero?) is a different kettle of fish. Ben Potter is not someone you were supposed to like in the past book—and yet I always intended to give you his story because it needs to be told.

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Imagine Ben Potter as a little rougher-around-the-edges version of this photo of Almanzo Wilder.

Ben is loosely based on the real men who served in Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. These men fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as soon as they returned to their home barracks in upstate New York, they were shipped out again to the Philippines.

38th Infantry on the Luneta

What had been meant as a sideshow the war against Spain became the first American imperial war overseas. In March 1899, only one month after tensions between Filipinos and Americans erupted in open combat, the Ninth was sent to reinforce the area around Manila. But they did not stay there long, either. After fighting in several battles that year, they were shipped to China to rescue to the American legation in Beijing (known back then as “Pekin”) during the Boxer War. They scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and camped in the palace grounds.

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The Ninth U.S. Infantry in the court of the Forbidden City. Image accessed from the Library of Congress.

One might question what the heck America was doing. A war against Spain fought in Cuba had blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Talk about mission creep. Yikes. Progressives in the Republican Club of Massachusetts claimed in a 1900 leaflet that the end justified the means: “Isn’t Every American proud of the part that American soldiers bore in the relief of Pekin? But that would have been impossible if our flag had not been in the Philippines.”

Once the foreign powers—Europe, Japan, and America—consolidated their hold on mainland China, the Ninth was sent back to the Philippine-American War. Their vacation was the steamer trip to Manila. There, the battle-weary group was given the privilege (and bother) of serving as honor guard for newly-named civilian governor (and future president of the United States), William Howard Taft.

The band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President William Howard Taft.

Two years into their overseas rotation, this company of grizzly veterans was sent to one of the roughest outposts in the islands: Balangiga, Samar. Tasked with closing the port to trade—thereby preventing weapon smuggling to the Philippine revolutionaries—Company C settled down to village garrison life.

These men may have been the worst possible choice for this task. By this point, they were unlikely to trust anyone. In addition, some soldiers were likely suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, they were cut off from the rest of the world, without even mail call since they were not on the main steamer line. Private Patrick J. Dobbins wrote to his family:

One man in my company went crazy a week ago and escaped to the hills, probably to be killed and eaten by the natives. Another, who was sick unto death, committed suicide this morning at 6 o’clock. His name is Schechterle and he enlisted at the same time I did in Boston. . . . A grave has been dug near our quarters, and a guard of eight men are over the grave. The body is being lowered into the earth. The flag is at half mast. Three volleys are fired, taps is sounded. It is his last call, ‘absent, but accounted for.’ He is better off. Many of us watch him as he is gently lowered with envious eyes.

Though the commanding officer of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was a West Point graduate (1894), he did not manage his garrison well. At first too permissive, he became stringent when he realized that his next promotion was on the line. He felt that the villagers were not obeying his commands to “clean up” the streets, so he ordered Company C to round up all the men and keep them prisoner in two tents on the square.

Yes, my character Ben will try to stop all of this from happening, but history is history. He will not be successful. A week later, the town—with help from guerrillas in the jungle—would ambush the company, killing 48 out of 74 Americans. This was real war with real consequences.

1st-Reserve-Hospital-corrected
The 1st Reserve Hospital in Manila (1900), similar to the field hospital in Basey, Samar, where Company C survivors would have been tended. Photo courtesy of the Philippine-American War Facebook group.

Obviously, my imaginary Ben Potter lived—or did he? For families like his in America, it would have been hard to know. Names in the real reports were spelled wrong. Numbers changed. It felt like even the Army did not know who had survived. When I found a real article in the Manila Times about a sister writing to a missing brother, I rewrote it in my mind to fit fiction:

Sister-Seeking-Brother-Manila-Times-Revised-Thin

This is a lot of backstory, to be sure. And it is only backstory, not the plot of my book. But I think it is critical history that Americans have forgotten and been doomed to repeat: the Philippines was the Vietnam or Iraq (or Syria?) of the Gilded Age.

Ben lives through these events as a very young man, and they will haunt him for years. Love may not be a cure for combat trauma, but it can encourage Ben to face his past—especially when that past threatens his future with an amazing woman. (Want to read some teasers? There are some here. Enjoy!)