War, Hurricanes, and A Decent Woman

WAR AND HURRICANES

I love to read great historical fiction, and when I pick up an historical novel, I often wonder what lead the author to select a particular century, era, or time frame for their novel. I chose to begin my historical novel, A Decent Woman, in 1900 Puerto Rico.

What happened in 1898? During the Spanish-American War, U.S. forces launched their invasion of Puerto Rico with 26,000 men storming the beaches of Guanica, Puerto Rico. After the signing of an armistice with Spain, American troops raised the U.S. flag over the island, formalizing U.S. authority over its one million inhabitants. On December 10, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Spanish-American War, ceding Puerto Rico to the United States.

What happened in 1899? The most destructive and longest-lived hurricane to date, San Ciriaco, hit Puerto Rico directly on August 8, 1899.

So why did I select 1900 for my historical novel, A Decent Woman?

I’m neither a meteorologist nor a military historian. I’m a Puerto Rican-born novelist who spent many years working as a Spanish language social worker and refugee case worker, and counselor in the United States and Europe. People interest me. I know it’s weird, but I like reading about extreme weather in history, and I love history, and I was also an Army brat. So, you can see what drove me to weave history and nature into my story, but it’s the people I wanted to write about, they propel the story, specifically, the Puerto Rican women at the turn of the century. To write about 1900 Puerto Rico, I had to include a couple of hurricanes, tropical storms, and an earthquake in this story.

Excerpt from the Prologue, A Decent Woman-

“After twenty-eight days of rain, the immense hurricane veered northwest leaving behind nearly two and a half billion tons of rainwater. When the waters receded, entire villages were wiped out, and families went missing, claimed by the raging sea and a storm surge that reached one mile inland. Bodies were found huddled with loved ones in their homes, in the parish church among brethren and sisters, and others were strewn along the mud-caked streets lying next to strangers.

Five hundred lives were lost on the island of Porto Rico; three hundred in the city of Ponce on the southwest coast. When all was said and done, the monstrous, long-lived hurricane claimed over thirty four hundred souls across the West Indies, leaving a quarter of a million without food and shelter.”

When the story opens, Ana Belén, an Afro-Cuban midwife, assists young Serafina at the birth of her first child during a tropical storm which they fear will be as devastating a hurricane as San Ciriaco, still fresh in their minds. Hurricane season in Porto Rico runs from June to November, so the likelihood of life standing still during this time is impossible. Porto Ricans did their best to continue their lives under constant threats.

Excerpt from Chapter One, A Decent Woman-

“A familiar howling sounded through the cracks and spaces between the wood walls of the Martínez house. Ana shuddered, and when the roof lifted and banged down, she looked up and froze. Seconds later, Roberto stood was in the house. Serafina awoke to the noise, and brought the mewing newborn closer to her chest. There was no need to speak; they knew what was coming. Roberto pushed the bed into the back corner away from the window, and helped the women under the bed. As if he hoped his weight would keep the bed from lifting if the roof blew off, he lay face down, and covered his head. When the shutter burst open, the women screamed, and turned their heads toward each other. Ana didn’t know which ear-piercing scream had been her own, and imagined a huge wave engulfing and swallowing up the house. The zinc roof twisted, groaned, and then ripped clean away from the walls, disappearing into the black sky. Ana prayed Roberto was heavy enough to keep the bed in place as she and Serafina huddled together, protecting the baby between them.”

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