The Balangiga incident/massacre/battle was a shocking twist in a war that seemed to be winding down. To many Americans and Filipinos, though, the conflict was just beginning…
Novelist Jennifer Hallock shares her research on Balangiga, and her experience teaching Philippines History in a US classroom. She explains how the surprise attack on US troops in Samar was the culmination of years of brutal warfare from 1898 to 1902. Local men disguised themselves covertly and snuck around town before striking Americans at breakfast. But while villagers may have repelled American soldiers temporarily, the aftermath of Balangiga would last for a very long time. On today’s episode we’re going to use events from a short battle to understand the effects of a much wider war…
I chatted with Joe Hawthorne about the attack at Balangiga in the Philippine-American War and how the American counteroffensive and the 1902 Senate hearings on “marked severities” predicted future outcries over My Lai and Fallujah. We redid parts of the interview, and because of the way it was edited, I introduce General Smith twice. His orders are shocking enough to revisit, though, so it works.
Some characters in this novel are based on real people but they have been renamed, conflated, and woven into a simplified account that serves my story. Ben Potter is loosely based upon Sergeant Frank Betron. This American soldier studied arnis from the real police chief in Balangiga, Valeriano Abanador. He also may have had a brief romance with the church caretaker, Casiana Nacionales. Betron remained in the Philippines after his escape from Balangiga, possibly to look for Casiana. He failed to find her, married a woman from Cebu, and settled elsewhere in the islands. Casiana, also known as Geronima or Susana, is one half of the model for Valentina. Accounts place her in Balangiga during the attack, but it is not known whether she stayed to cover the departure of the other women or to help coordinate the ambush by sneaking weapons into the church. The other model for Valentina is a real Pulahan priestess, resistance fighter, and healer, Bruna Fabrigar.
It is no accident that my hero, Ben Potter, is drawn to smart, passionate women—but only Allegra wins this soldier’s heart. Actually, this phrase is doubly appropriate: “soldier’s heart” was the contemporary term for combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Ben’s struggle is inspired by first-hand accounts from three of my best friends: two U.S. Army veterans of the Vietnam War, Jim (MACV-SOG, I Corps) and Rudy (11th Armored Cavalry, III Corps); as well as Rich, a Marine survivor of the 1984 terror attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. I have taken Ben’s story in directions that none of these men would have imagined, but I could not have imagined any of it without their help.
Allegra Alazas was a scene-stealer in Under the Sugar Sun, and I always knew the next novel would be hers. Her iconoclastic character was sparked by the sly half-smile of a Filipino woman in a lantern slide taken by E. W. Goodrich, Tremont Temple, Boston, and housed at the University of Michigan Philippine Photographs Digital Archive. Allegra is not based on any single person—she has always had a voice of her own, right from the beginning—but she would be honored by any resemblance shown to the brilliant Regina Abuyuan. Gina was a writer, editor, school founder, teacher, pub owner, mother, wife, advocate, and friend. We love and miss you, Gina.
Allegra’s attitudes toward colonial education policy came from the many questions that arose during my research, especially about the thoroughly inappropriate children’s readers imported from the United States. In 1907 the first Philippine primers were published by the World Book Company—though unlike Allegra’s series, these were written entirely by Americans. Sometimes history needs a shove in the right direction. See scholars Roland Sintos Coloma, Kimberly A. Alidio, and A. J. Angulo to learn more.
Also essential to creating Sugar Moon were my language gurus: Liana Smith Bautista (Cebuano); Stephen Fernandez and Adriana Sanchez (Spanish); Scott Giampetruzzi and Andres Reyes (Latin); and Suzette de Borja (Waray). I cannot thank my beta readers enough: Teresa Noelle Roberts; Priscilla and Jim Lockney; and the members of the Weare Area Writers Guild. Also, a big thanks to the authors at NECRWA and #romanceclass for being mentors and friends.
This book would not have been possible without the editing, advice, design, technical expertise, and support of my husband, Stephen. He is the hero who makes my dreams possible—at the cost of many hundreds of hours he would have otherwise set aside to play guitar. If he does not become the next Richard Thompson, you have just read why.
Ben Potter is not your typical hero. I don’t say this because of his checkered past, which he has. No, I mean his unusual talent for a male lead in a historical romance: Ben sews.
Ben is the grandson of a self-made tailor and the son of an industrious seamstress. He grew up working in his family’s shop. He was supposed to inherit it—before the Spanish-American War broke out, that is. (Before Ben, like so many other young men, were persuaded by the sensationalist press to “liberate” the Cuban people from Spanish tyranny. That’s not how it turned out, by the way.)
Ben has opinions about the fit of suits. He sizes a man up by his “well-molded shoulders” and “perfect trouser break.” He is the one who visits the tailor several times to make his suit fit. “Even so, the collar did not feel right,” he thinks to himself, and after that he makes his own work shirts. Fashioning a doll for his niece is no sweat, and a sewing machine makes dresses for the doll even easier and faster.
Could there really be a Singer on a hacienda in Bais? Yes! The Singer Sewing Machine company had actually been selling their products in the Philippines since 1882, predating the American colonial period. According to Pinoy Kollektor, over a quarter-million units were sold by 300 Singer outlets in the Philippines by 1912, adding 1500 jobs to the economy.
The Singer showroom on the Escolta was one of the most photographed landmarks on the street, probably because the Americans who saw it assumed it arrived with Dewey’s navy. (Of course they did.)
Ironically, one of the reasons that Americans desired an empire was to sell their goods in Asia—particularly in China, but in the Philippines too. Did they need military conquest to do so? No. As Private First Class Reginald “Malik” Edwards, a Vietnam vet, said of that subsequent war, “Sometimes I think we would have done a lot better to by getting [the Vietnamese] hooked on our life-style than by trying to do it with guns….Blue jeans works better than bombs.” In this case, Singer sewing machines would have worked better than Colts and Krags. Ben certainly would have preferred them.
Final note: for more beautiful, historic Singer photographs, check out the website of Pinoy Kollektor.
I began writing SugarMoon in 2013. I began writing this blog in 2016. In both cases, that’s a long time ago. It includes years of writing about the Philippine-American War, and in particular the Balangiga incident—a central event shaping the character of my redemption-seeking-hero Ben Potter.
Let’s say you know nothing about what happened in Balangiga—or even nothing about the Philippine-American War. Don’t worry, you won’t need to in order to read Sugar Moon. But let’s say you’re a history geek like me? Well, I’ve written a lot of content just for you!
I have tried to organize this by the most logical questions. Read the captions, and if you want to know more just click on the link below the image. Geek out!
Question 1: Where is this book set?
Question 2: Why were Americans in the Philippines?
Question 3: What happened in Samar?
Question 4: What else do I need to know about a soldier’s life in 1901?
Question 5: What else should I know about the world of Ben Potter?
Question 6: What should I know about the world of Allegra Alazas?
And you can find out more about Allegra, her home, her family, and her background by reading through these annotated glossary posts:
Question 7: Where can I find some excerpts from this book?