I have some fun news coming soon, and I do not wish to spoil it. I will say this: if you have purchased Hotel Oriente in the past, please go update your copy now. Go to “Manage Content and Devices,” search “Hotel Oriente,” and click “update.” Yay! More to come, including an explanation, I promise…
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 am lucky. I get to teach important stuff that few survey classes touch. By the time US history teachers get to the Spanish-American War, they have one eye on the Great War and everything it sets in motion, and the other eye on the AP test coming up likely in a matter of weeks. Most students I talk to bemoan the fact that they barely cover Vietnam, and their teachers are likely a lot more familiar with Vietnam than the Philippine-American War. If they cannot cover My Lai, Woodstock, and Agent Orange, how can they find time for Balangiga, the Lodge Commission, and the water cure? (Well, some students do, and in the eighth and ninth grade no less!)
I teach trimester electives to mostly high school seniors about American empire and war in the Philippines (and China, Hawaii, Japan, and Pacific islands), in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), and in Iraq (along with Iran, Afghanistan, and more). I try to add value with my own synthesis and analysis, but simply assigning the right readings is the first step to knowledge. I thought I might share some recommendations, not all of which are pictured above. Note that I make no money off the sales of these books, nor have I received any free copies or compensation for endorsing them.
This book by Daniel Immerwahr is, in his own words, not really new information—but considering how deftly he weaves together the many threads, you might think it is. How to Hide an Empire is a sweeping history of US expansion since independence, when what we call a republic was actually as much undefined territory as it was incorporated state. It’s eye-opening in a red-pill Matrix way, yet it manages to be entertaining and even funny. How did American Pacific empire between with bird shit? True story. How did overseas US bases inspire the Beatles and Sony? And what does the base system look like now, and why don’t Americans hear about it more in the news?
I would recommend this book to everyone from young adults on up, but I think it is especially important for US citizens. Though I use it as “homework,” it does not feel like it to my students. Many of them choose to read the portions we have not assigned in class because it is that good.
While How to Hide an Empire paints the forest vividly, with the occasional tree, Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer is a neat row of evergreens at a Christmas tree farm. And just like that row planted by some agri-corp eager to make a profit off idealistic, family-farm nostalgia, Kinzer lays out difficult truths of big business behind seemingly altruistic goals. Each chapter takes the reader through the spy-thriller-esque story (but darker) of every time the US has overthrown a foreign government.
Sometimes the role was at least in part unofficial—a cabal of American-born landowners overthrew the queen of Hawaii, but they probably would not have succeeded had the US envoy not landed the Marines on shore in support. But sometimes the role was very much official, such as when the CIA overthrew the popularly-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953. Kinzer has individual titles that dig more deeply into individual cases, such as his books on the debate over the seizure of the Philippines, the coups in Iran and Guatemala, and the unbelievable Cold War origins when the leaders of US covert and overt foreign policy were brothers! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The authors of the first published 9/11 Report intended to make the text readable because they wanted to reach the widest range of Americans possible, to answer the “Why?” questions better than the television networks were doing. But it was a big book, with, you know, lots of words. In my class I use this visual adaptation, and it is often the first time that my students have a teacher using a graphic novel as an instructional tool. They find that disconcerting because my students—wonderful as they are, and they are wonderful—like order and predictability. Shaking up the strict left-to-right line-by-line structure does put them off their game at first, but they get the hang of it. And they love the massive amounts of information this graphic novel version gives them in just a few days of assignments.
I teach a high school course, not university, on America in Vietnam, so I do not have the time to dig deep into the masterworks of nonfiction or fiction on the war in one trimester. This collection includes excerpts in a single volume, including: memoirs like If I Die in a Combat Zone (Tim O’Brien), Born on the Fourth of July (Ron Kovic), A Rumor of War (Philip Caputo); reporting and oral histories like Dispatches (Michael Herr), Nam (Mark Baker), and Bloods (Wallace Terry); and fiction like The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), Going After Cacciato (also Tim O’Brien), and more. The collection also includes essays on the major films of the war, along with relevant song lyrics. If you want the flavor of a little bit of everything, like a buffet on the American experience of the war, this single volume will do it. I have used it for so long that my book has literally broken into two halves. (No, I am not careful with my spines, don’t @ me, bibliophiles.)
There are many great works on the war not in this volume, probably because an excerpt would not do them justice. I highly recommend A Bright Shining Lie (Neil Sheehan) for understanding how “body count” and “search and destroy” were the exact opposite of what counterinsurgency strategy should be, as told through an engaging biography of a deeply flawed veteran and intelligence officer named John Paul Vann. For the Vietnamese perspective, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Le Ly Hayslip), puts you in the shoes of a woman in Central Vietnam who simply wants to stay out of the line of fire. There are more books written by other Vietnamese authors recently, which is terrific, but I still go back to this one because it is such a simple premise and yet so universal.
I borrowed this memoir by James Carroll, one of several he has written, from my local library. Yours probably has it too. Its full title is An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us. As you can tell from the subtitle, this book is also partly a biography of his father, the founder of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon. Carroll grew up an Air Force brat tooling around East and West Berlin in fast cars, then went to seminary and became a Catholic priest. (Not surprisingly, that is why I initially picked this up. Carroll took off his collar and was eventually granted a dispensation, and his more recent works, like The Truth at the Heart of the Lie, deal with the issues he sees with the priesthood as currently constituted. I recommend those too, as well as his latest fiction, The Cloister.)
Carroll became an anti-war activist, and though he was not quite as important to the resistance as the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, his bravery was not in doubt. He had a lot at stake in challenging his own family’s privilege, yet he did it. At his first Mass at an Air Force chapel on base, he made a statement against the use of napalm and Agent Orange—the bread and butter of the USAF during the war. I cringed as I read through this scene, and not because I don’t agree with Carroll. It was really uncomfortable, yet bold.
What I also love about this memoir of the early period of the war is how clearly Carroll shows the complicity of the American Catholic Church, especially Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman, in the war. Spellman helped handpick President Diem, and even after Diem’s removal and assassination, he and his subordinates continued to support the war effort unquestioningly. One of Carroll’s first novels, The Prince of Peace, carries this Cold War loyalty as a big theme.
On May 15th my good friend Ellen H. Reed sent me this article from the Manchester Union-Leader. (By the way, Ellen is a terrific historical and paranormal fiction author for everyone from middle-grade readers to adults.) Now Ellen knew I would be interested in the story because she recognized the island and battle that these students were investigating from the raw passages of a novel that I had been reading to her since 2017 at our Weare Area Writers Guild meetings.
For years I have been digging into the history that too few Americans understand: I teach about Balangiga in one of my classes, I have blogged about it, written some more, and even been interviewed on podcasts. What happened there, if properly understood, could have warned us off tragedies at My Lai and Fallujah—maybe. Forgotten history helps no one, so I made this event the backstory of my character Ben Potter in Sugar Moon. (For even more of the history behind the novel, check out this list of posts.)
Research Tourism in the Philippines
I was so interested in investigating what happened at Balangiga that I dragged my husband down to Samar to see the town for ourselves. It was a quick trip, unfortunately, because torrential rains were causing mudslides, and we had to evacuate. (Note to self: Next time remember that different islands have different rainy seasons. Rookie mistake.) Because we could not get a flight out, we took a twenty-six-hour bus ride back on a urine-soaked back bench seat—the last two seats available, and with good reason. By the time we squeezed into a tric to get from the bus station to the airport parking lot, the eau de diesel of Manila bus traffic might as well have been the scent of daisies.
The image below is still one of my favorite pictures of the two of us from our life together in the Philippines. We moved back to the United States in 2011.
Artifacts closer to home
Imagine my surprise ten years later, when a few young historians uncovered new artifacts from Balangiga—in neighboring Derry, New Hampshire! These 8th- and 9th-grade students had become the caretakers of some letters, a leather strap, and a mysterious red sash—all artifacts that had been passed down from their original owner, Charles King, an American Marine from Amherst, Massachusetts. (The article said he was part of the Army, but his letter says otherwise.)
Because King had no children, he left the belongings to a nephew, who in turn gifted them to a man with a passion for history, T.J. Cullinane of the Derry Heritage Commission. Cullinane offered them to teachers Erin Gagliardi and Sue Gauthier. And Erin and Sue showed them to their history enrichment group, a non-credit activity for volunteer students at St. Thomas Aquinas School.
The pandemic shut down their school, but they kept working on the project—all the more earnestly because they did not have the typical distractions of busy school life and classes. They transcribed the letters and started to learn about a campaign of retribution that troubled them.
What happened at Balangiga
Charles King believed he was serving justice upon the people of Balangiga and southern Samar, punishing them for their uprising that killed 48 of 77 soldiers in Company C, Ninth Infantry. The story that King and everyone else was told was simple: the attack was unprovoked treachery on the part of ungrateful Filipinos led by General Vincente Lukban of the Philippine Revolutionary Army. It was not until Bob Couttie and Professor Rolando O. Borrinaga dug deeper that the truth was revealed.
Lukban’s lieutenants may have approved of the idea of the attack, but the real masterminds were the leaders of the town itself. They had just been pushed too far. Captain Connell, commanding officer of Company C, had upset the people with heavy-handed tactics, forced labor, and nightly imprisonment of the men in inhumane conditions.
The town struck back. They sent the women away and drew in extra men from the surrounding villages. On Saturday, September 28, 1901, while many in the garrison were nursing hangovers from the previous night’s festival, the town attacked them at breakfast. It was a gruesome scene. The battle lasted a few hours until a handful of American survivors fled the town, eventually making it to a neighboring garrison—barely.
The Howling Wilderness
The very next day, an American expedition set out to burn Balangiga to the ground and, later, much of the rest of southern Samar. Their commanding officer, General Jacob H. Smith of the Sixth Separate Brigade, told them: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” He wanted his men to make Samar a “howling wilderness.” It was a disproportionate response that caused extensive and unnecessary suffering throughout the island.
The Sixth Separate Brigade also went out looking for the priest of Balangiga, whom they believed had taken part in the planning and execution of the attack. It seems that Charles King was part of the team who found him.
The most important artifact left to the Derry students was the “ribon [sic] taken from the robe” of a priest who “betrayed a whole company of American soldiers.” The students would later find out that the priest, Father Donato Guimbaolibot, did not betray the Americans. In fact, Padre Guimbaolibot left town in order to remove his sanction from the events that would take place. He did not warn the Americans, true, but since the Americans were imprisoning all of the town’s men, about 150 people, in two tents built for sixteen, maybe the priest just wanted to get the heck out of there and find help.
Father Christopher Gaffrey, the Franciscan associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas, helped the students examine the ribbon—a stole, he informed them, which meant it was a sacred priestly vestment. When he looked at the loop, he noticed the original dye was likely a dark purple, the kind used for the sacrament of confession.
The students wanted to know more, and they got in touch with author and historian Bob Couttie, author of Hang the Dogs: The True Tragic Story of the Balangiga Massacre. Bob’s book was one of the key sources that I used for Sugar Moon. Bob helped them understand what had really happened—especially to the maligned priest who later was captured, tortured, and traumatized. Charles King likely played a part in Guimbaolibot’s ordeal because it was he who brought the sash home as a war souvenir.
Bob asked the students what they planned to do with the stole. The students answered as one: “Send it back where it belongs.” Matching the recent return of the bells, a public gesture, this is an amazing private gesture. Young they may be, but these students knew the right thing to do, without adult guidance. Their teachers support them, but they did not suggest this course.
Small World syndrome
I knew none of what was happening just forty minutes down the road from my home. When I read the article, I could not believe what I had missed. But this week I was able to meet the students myself, see the artifacts, and answer more of their questions. I even told them the bus trip story. They do not need me, but I was at least able to help them identify a few towns and tell them a bit more about the wider context of this battle and what happened afterward. They asked wonderful questions about religious conflicts in the islands, about the diseases that worsened the civilian toll of the war, as well as current US-Philippine relations. Their curiosity was a credit to them, as if the whole enterprise has not already been.