It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.
To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.
The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila . . . but that’s not saying much.
Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.
That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her . . .
Jonas Vanderburg volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the 1902 cholera epidemic. He wishes his nurse would let him die, too.
Rosa Ramos wants nothing more to do with American men. Her previous Yankee lover left her with a ruined reputation and a child to raise alone. A talented nurse at a provincial hospital, she must now care for another American, this time a missionary whose friends believe her beyond redemption.
The papers back home call Ben Potter a hero of the Philippine-American War, but he knows the truth. When his estranged brother-in-law offers him work slashing sugarcane, Ben seizes the opportunity to atone—one acre at a time. At the hacienda Ben meets schoolteacher Allegra Alazas. While Allegra bristles at her family’s traditional expectations, the one man who appreciates her intelligence and independence seems to be the very worst marriage prospect on the island.
Neither Ben nor Allegra fit easily in their separate worlds, so together they must build one of their own. But when Ben’s wartime past crashes down upon them, it threatens to break their elusive peace.
This is Andres’s book (aka #UndressAndres) and you can read about my progress in researching his world here. There is a lot of medical history I have learned for the heroine, a doctor. That research has been partly through reading but primarily through podcasts.
Ben’s hips flattened and froze against hers. He pushed harder and harder until the carved floral bedpost pressed its pattern into her skin. She shut her eyes and her whole body clenched, burned, and then melted with him.
I bet you’re wondering what that would look like—the carved bed post, not the sex. You can use your imagination with the sex.
The elaborate four-poster Narra frame, with its intricately carved Art Nouveau posts, was the creation of Eduardo Ah Tay, a furniture maker in Binondo. The kalabasa, or squash-shaped, dome design became “a status symbol for the nineteenth-century mestizo elite” in their bahay na bato houses. (Cheaper beds—versions not made by Ah Tay—had spiral posts.)
The Americans did not know genius when they saw it:
“Look here, North,” the congressman said. “You gave us unmade rooms!”
Moss had checked the rooms himself. “What are you missing, sir?”
“Most of my bed!” Holt huffed. “Why, there isn’t a stitch of bedclothes on the blooming thing. Not even a mattress! I raised the mosquito-netting and found nothing but a bamboo mat.”
Holt’s confusion was based on a real story of an irate newcomer to the Hotel de Oriente. The rattan platform, mattress-less bed was known among Americans for being “springless, unyielding, and anything but comfortable,” or “an instrument of torture, a rack, an inspirer of insomnia.”
But actually, the genius of the bed was air flow. Woven rattan was both perforated and strong, which made it the go-to technique for a lot of local furniture, including the sillon chair. This ingenuous use of local materialskept you cool before the advent of air conditioning.
Eventually, even Philippines Commissioner Worcester, who once called the Ah Tay bed “that serious problem,” came to regard it a luxury of the tropics. Traveler Burton Holmes agreed the bed had been “unjustly ridiculed and maligned.” He said, “It is…perfectly adapted to local conditions, a bed evolved by centuries of experience in a moist, hot, insect-ridden tropic land, and from the artistic point of view is not unattractive.”
But don’t try to sleep on an original Ah Tay: not only might it be in delicate condition, but most are far too small. (Humans have gotten taller and rounder in the last 120 years.) There is a decent sized one at the Casa Consuelo Museum in Tiaong, Quezon, and its owners even claim that it—and everything in the house—is authentic. Or you can build yourself a modern-sized reproduction, complete with solid mattress frame, like at the Museo sa Parian in Cebu.
Either way, this is the type of bed where Allegra Potter will bring her handsome, six-foot-plus suitor, Ben Potter. This is where she debauches him in Sugar Moon.
My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Far worse was the American counterattack on the entire island of Samar. Most people have never heard of either. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.
Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill. People will suffer.
The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, encounter, or more specifically an ambush. The key question is why? What had happened in that town in the month of September 1901?
I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.
Relations between Filipinos and the American garrison did not start worse than anywhere else. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. One sergeant studied martial arts with the police chief. The townspeople were in an impossible situation. If they became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. If they resisted American rules, the yanks would start to limit normal activity in the town. So the people of Balangiga tried to play it cool, stay neutral.
But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and they thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. But if the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. It is a dangerous game, and an ironic one to be imposed by a country whose own origin narrative of speaks of uprooting imperial oppression. The Patriots had become the Redcoats.
The captain of Company C doubled down. He imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were jammed full with between 70-90 men each. The Filipinos had to sit on their haunches all night because there was not room to lay down. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.
The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks. He knows it is a debacle. He has concerns about his fellow soldiers and harbors resentment against his officers, partly because he did not want to be in Balangiga or the Philippines to begin with. (He joined the army to fight for “Cuba Libre!” He had believed the propaganda—that he would be helping people against Spanish oppression—but instead found himself in Spanish shoes. He will not like the fit.)
On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, the police chief attacked the American sentry. A church bell rang. Warriors rushed out of the jungle line east of town. Others dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, and several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.
Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries—General Lukban’s men in the interior of Samar—but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.
After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. The American commander in Samar ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. His orders were in direct violation of General Order No. 100, which served as the American law of war at this time.
American soldiers made a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and kill anyone in sight. Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga. The destruction was so widespread that it sowed the seeds for a whole new war only three years later.
This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.
But how do you criticize the methods of occupation without questioning the whole endeavor to begin with? You can blame a few “bad apples” to satisfy the public, but is it enough? The general in Samar received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, and though popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement, the punishment still didn’t fit the crime. The general retired with a full pension. Similarly, the American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only three years, much of it under house arrest. In both cases, “marked severities” divided the American public.
George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting he said so at the outset of what was later called the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad—and it’s aftereffects like PTSD—are familiar to people today. But they were not really a part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War.
Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. We need to keep talking about it.
What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!
You want to read about the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, the interesting! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?
Marianne and Lily are intriguing because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole, while Lily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Cool books! Where did I find them, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.
But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:
The Ice Cube Tray Model
My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people—one or two sides of a mold—but if I actually wrote books for them I would fictionalize them by mixing in other elements. Pour in all the individual hopes, dreams, and quirks that you need to make each character three-dimensional.
Here is an example from my writing: I found the original inspiration for my character Allegra Alazas of Sugar Moon from a single lantern slide found at the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive. Why did this image speak to me? Because the half-scowl on the woman’s face seems to say, “Mr. Photographer, you and I both know that you are an idiot, but I am just polite enough not to say it out loud.” Based on what I could discern from the photo, I thought that maybe this woman would have been educated in Manila at a fancy convent school. So I found a few of those in another primary source, a Commercial Directory of Manila in 1901. And what would the woman in the photo say to Sister Elenteria in their Artificial Flowers class? Well, if you know Allegra, you know that she told the sister where exactly she could put her artificial flowers in a country with bountiful natural ones. And Allegra was born.
The Straitjacket Model
What if you find outliers you don’t like? There always will be archival sources that represent the worst of a chosen era, and these constraints can give you what you need for a foil or villain. I did this for Archie Blaxton and the Stinnetts, the ugly Americans from Under the Sugar Sun and Tempting Hymn. These characters were partly modeled after the Coles, teachers in Leyte (see photo of Mary Cole below).
The Open Flame Model
Real history can also provide conflict, too. Why did Georgina Potter head to the Philippines in Under the Sugar Sun? I found a newspaper article in the Manila Times archive about an undelivered letter that fell into the hands of the wrong person. It was written by a very-worried sister who did not know what had become of her brother. And I thought to myself, “Where was this brother? What was the sister going to do next? What would happen when she actually finds him?” Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet. I call this the open flame.
The Millstone Model
For Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. It is a big part of his internal conflict.
The Fridge Magnet Model
Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But that really happened to a real clueless American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.
Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but shame on you!) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever people were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right her night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.
Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!
[This is part 3 of a series on the Spanish-American War. Read Part I and Part II.]
By late April 1898, the United States and Spain had declared war against each other, but that did not mean an immediate start of hostilities—at least not in the Caribbean. These were not the days of “shock and awe,” when the moment a deadline had passed, bombers were already airborne and closing in on their target. For the Americans to launch a full-scale assault on the Spanish in Cuba took time. It took planning. Lots and lots of planning. In fact, it took two months to load men, horses, and supplies—including some rather noxious tinned beef—off the docks in Tampa, Florida.
At home Americans grew nervous: Spain was not the power it had once been, but neither was the US military going to set them quaking in their boots. American military spending in the 1890s was roughly a quarter of what it is today, as a percentage of our national output. The entire United States Army was was 27% smaller than today’s New York City Police Department, according to author Max Boot. How would the Yanks fare?
Then came the good news that Commodore Dewey had sunk the entire (rusty) Spanish fleet in Manila—in half a day! The Spanish surrendered shortly after noon. (See featured image.) This lopsided victory boosted morale across the United States and made long recruiting lines longer. Dewey became a new national hero: “Dewey” emerged as the 19th most popular baby name for boys in 1898; the Commodore’s image graced calendars and other memorabilia; and the man himself was promoted to admiral and awarded a custom-made $10,000 Tiffany sword cast in 22-karat gold. Sweet.
Despite all of this hoopla, the young volunteers still did not expect to end up in the Philippines like their hero—let alone to be sent to China to fight in the 1900 Boxer War—but that was exactly where many headed. Once the Americans decided to keep the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for itself—and paid Spain $20 million for the lot—that’s when the soldiers were needed. And boy would they be needed. See, there had been an ongoing Philippine revolution again the Spanish, just like in Cuba, and the Filipinos did not want to trade one imperial overlord for another. So they fought back. (I’m simplifying greatly, but the Filipino side of the story will have to be told in a later post. It’s a great one.)
This was a classic case of mission creep. Americans believed they were fighting on the side of democracy, but where does that obligation stop? They did not want to kick the Spanish out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam only to let someone else waltz right in. (In terms of the Philippines, it is possible that Japan or Germany might have seen an opportunity there.)
Was not America the best country on earth, asked Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt, hero of San Juan Hill? Should we not “civilize” the Filipinos, asked Beveridge? Did we not have a duty to “benevolently assimilate” the islands and give them “the blessings of good and stable government,” asked President McKinley?
Psst…that’s sorta against everything we fought our own revolution for, others said. Psst…that’s gonna be expensive, Andrew Carnegie said. Psst…what you’re talking about is killing innocent people to “win” your imperialist game, Mark Twain said. Where will your “civilized values” be then, Twain added? Actually, it was not a debate in hushed tones; it was a loud, raucous, fiery debate in the press, in Congress, and on Main Street. It was the election of 1900.
This was the moment when America tipped into the twentieth century, suddenly anxious to prove itself as one of the big kids on the block. What would follow was painful for all involved. The Philippine-American War was less glorious and more ambiguous than advertised. It would cost almost 4200 American lives—which, as a proportion of the population, is more than the official death toll of the 2003-2011 Iraq War. The cost was far higher for the Filipinos—about 25,000 military deaths and an estimated 750,000 civilian deaths from war, starvation, and disease. That is one-tenth of the population of the islands. Financially, it was costly for everyone. The US would spend $400 million fighting the war, out of a total government outlay of $2 billion. That means that the initial stages of the war from 1899-1902 would cost Americans one-fifth, or twenty percent, of their total government spending in that period.
Though the Philippines was officially pacified in 1902, there would be American operations through 1913, especially in the southern islands. (There were some particularly nasty campaigns, too, and these will be the subject of later posts. Two of these are the backdrop for Sugar Moon: the Balangiga incident and the Pulahan War.)
Even after these wars were over, America did not call Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam straight-up colonies. No, sir. We don’t like that word. It’s awkward, given our history. So we called them our “insular” (island) possessions. And then the question arose: does the Constitution follow the flag? Should our new insular mentees receive the full legal protections of the US Constitution? The answer might (or might not) surprise you. It was, “Not exactly.”
The Insular Cases (e.g. Downes v. Bidwell, 1901) in front of the Supreme Court decided that there was a difference between land that was destined for statehood (the American West) and land that wasn’t (the insular possessions). The “incorporated” land on the American continent would eventually graduate to statehood, and its people would be granted citizenship in the meantime. You might be surprised that Hawaii and Alaska were seen as “incorporated,” but remember that there were a lot of white settlers there. No one said it at the time, but the real litmus test of incorporation was race.
“Unincorporated” land would not get citizenship, free trade, or statehood. The people would still have natural liberties—religion, speech, equal protection, and property—just not political liberties. Secretary of War Elihu Root put it succinctly: “The Constitution follows the flag, but never quite catches up.”
The people of Puerto Rico were granted US citizenship in 1917, but because they were not stripped of Puerto Rican citizenship, their current status has a bit of an asterisk next to it. Full Constitutional protections do not kick in until a Puerto Rican moves to one of the fifty states or the District of Columbia. For example, Puerto Ricans, who are American nationals, do not have the right to vote in US congressional and presidential elections until they reside in the US. Guam was given similar citizenship rights as of 1950, but their government is actually less autonomous. The people of the Philippines were never granted US citizenship, though they are the only ones to have eventually received independence, in 1946.
One final issue that came out of this “insular” designation was economic. One possible benefit of being a part of the United States would be unencumbered trade with Americans. That, after all, had been the original point. But American producers wanted to sell their stuff to the islanders, not compete with cheap island costs of production. So they kept tariff walls up—something that would not have been possible if Philippine and Puerto Rican soil had been truly American, but was possible as “insular possessions.”
Eventually, free trade would be extended to the Philippines in 1913, only to be gradually stripped away in preparations for independence. Puerto Rico has free trade with the United States, but honestly everything else about its economic status is confusing as hell because of the legal limbo in which some US laws apply, others don’t, and Congress specifically guts PR in others. It is like playing Monopoly with your six-year old and letting him be the banker. Suddenly, Boardwalk is not allowed to charge rent anymore, just “because.” Actually, to call Congress as whimsical and arbitrary as a six-year old is an injustice to six-year olds everywhere.
See how this has led to the Puerto Rican debt crisis in this cheeky Jon Oliver treatment, or in a more elevated (but still outstanding) discussion at On the Media. Maybe Puerto Rico deserves debt restructuring merely for dealing with the insane legislation imposed upon it by the United States? And because they are Americans? We bailed out General Motors, and they only employ 200,000 Americans. Puerto Rico has 3.2 million Americans.
In the Philippines, things were moving more full circle. After kicking American military forces out of naval and air bases on Luzon in 1992, the Filipinos invited the U.S. back as guests on their own bases. This was both to fight Islamist terrorism in the southern islands and to bolster naval defense against the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Bilateral relations have grown more complicated since, but it is sort of like a family dispute, where disagreements today are affected by the baggage of shared history. With 350,000 US citizens living in the Philippines and over four million Americans of Filipino ancestry in the United States, connections span the Pacific. What better genre to talk about enduring family love than romance?