Edith here, still writing from north of Boston and itching to get into her garden.
Once again I am delighted to welcome my fellow nominees for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. Yes, we are all staying home, sniff, and not gathering in North Bethesda next weekend for Malice Domestic 32. However – voting will go on, as will a virtual awards ceremony! Malice has announced that voting for all current registrants will begin on April 30, 2020 and will close on May 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm ET. The live Agatha Awards will begin on May 2, 2020 at 7:00 pm – just like it would have if we weren’t all quarantined, except we’ll all have our separate banquets at home. We hope you all can tune in to the show.
Here’s the question I posed to Rhys Bowen, Susanna Calkins, LA Chandler, first-time nominee, New England’s own Gabriel Valjan – and to myself:
“How would your nominated protagonist respond to a world-wide pandemic during which people were asked to self-isolate and take extreme measures not to infect others? How would they have stayed sane and amused?”
Take it away, gang.
Rhys Bowen: My heroine, Lady Georgiana, would be stellar in our current situation. Having been brought up in a remote Scottish castle, self isolation would come naturally, as long as she could get out into fresh air. And being related to the royal family, she had duty drummed into her from an early age. She would emulate her great grandmother, Queen Victoria and do what was expected of her—unlike her cousin, the Prince of Wales, who abandoned duty for the love of a certain American woman! The only problem would be her new husband, Darcy O’Mara. At this point in her life she has moved into a big country estate in the English countryside where it would be easy to keep the world at bay, except that Darcy gets given strange assignments that might put him into contact with other people in other parts of the world. But the house is big enough that he could have his own suite, just to make sure—if he could keep away from Georgie for that long.
Susanna Calkins: In 1918, when the Spanish flu broke out in Chicago, my protagonist Gina Ricci was about sixteen years old and living alone with her father on the lower level of a two-flat. Her brother Aidan was still over in France, fighting in the last months of the Great War. Her papa, an engineer who drove the city’s elevated trains (the “L”), was expected to report to work every day, leaving her alone. Gina was still expected to attend high school every day, even as public spaces, such as zoos, amusement parks, skating rinks, and theaters, were being closed throughout the city. The Chicago authorities had decided it was better to keep children inside, so that their health could be better monitored by school officials. If a child sneezed or coughed, they would be sent home immediately. If an adult sneezed or coughed on the street, or spat on the “L”, they could be fined or even arrested. (Interestingly, churches, bars and restaurants remained open throughout the contagion, to keep up the city’s morale.)
Gina, who likes to tinker, spent her time alone fixing things around the house. Her upstairs neighbor loaned her a few cookbooks, so she learned to make some simple meals for her father, to stretch their meager supplies the best she could. She also spent her days pouring over her neighbor’s magazines, mostly Life and Variety, imagining a more exciting life for herself.
L.A. Chandlar: It’s safe to say my firecracker Lane Sanders would not enjoy being cooped up. Being aide to the extremely busy, never stopping Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, she’d definitely still have a lot of work to do, even if distancing herself. But to occupy her private time, she’s a reader. In The Pearl Dagger Lane meets J.R.R. Tolkien and can hardly wait for The Hobbit to come out the following fall. Lane also loves to dance. So I think in the evenings after their favorite radio shows, Aunt Evelyn and Mr. Kirkland would roll back the carpet and turn on some dance tunes. And just like most of us, Lane would also be creating her own cocktails. She would also be a little sad for her city, like I am. The pulsing heartbeat of the culture, the wide variety of people, the very energy is the heart of it and it was suffering. But Lane would know beyond a DOUBT, that they will carry on. And the city will be even better, its spirit unbreakable.
New York City handled the 1918 flu epidemic really well and very similarly to how we are handling this today. But through the hard times, they didn’t just survive, they thrived. And we will too. It’s hard, but with wonderful people and fantastic art -like the Wickeds!- we will find beauty out of this adversity and we will thrive.
Gabriel Valjan: Walker is a combat veteran, and he’s survived some of the fiercest battles in World War 2. Few people know about the Colmar Pocket: Walker had gone from that to the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Dachau in rapid succession. The military timeline alone suggests that he lived through unspeakable days of relentless and ruthless carnage. The majority of combat veterans, past or present, who have lived through such violence do not discuss it. Walker is no different. He is soft-spoken, even insecure about his talents. What keeps him motivated is a sense of duty and service, to not fail those around him. A soldier’s first duty is to accept orders.
An order for self-isolation would be hard on him, because he would think he ought to do something. Doing nothing is doing something and that is the paradox. Walker would be smart enough to get it…eventually. He is well-read, has an appreciation for music, thanks to the first girl who broke his heart, and he knows how to avoid people because he did so for many years, for emotional reasons. As for sanity, readers discover alongside with Walker in the Naming Game that Walker loves writing. He realizes he has as much a talent for writing a story as he does for doing spy craft for the newly-formed CIA at a major Hollywood studio in 50s Los Angeles.
Edith Maxwell: Rose Carroll is a midwife in the late 1880s, so she’s a medical professional and therefore providing an essential service, if they used that terminology. Pandemic or no, women are still pregnant and having babies. Rose would be out there riding around Amesbury on her bicycle doing her work. She would make all efforts to be safe, and would be talking to other midwives and doctors about best practices. But her devotion to her moms and babies would take precedence.
In an era where just living took a lot of work, isolating wouldn’t have been easy. Rose’s nieces and nephews have books to read and games to play with, but Rose and and her older niece, Faith, would need to go out to several markets and the butcher to buy food and milk. They live in a town, not on a farm. And of course antibiotics and antiviral medicines were only a dream. Still, Rose is a positive person, and her Quaker faith leads her to service. She would be sewing masks so she and other could still get out there and provide assistance.
Edith: One more flash question for the nominees. What are you wearing to the awards ceremony? (Don’t bother with footware – I’ll have my old fleecey LL Bean clog-slippers on below my pretty dress…)
Rhys: I was supposed to be on a cruise on May 2 so I’ll be wearing new clothes I bought for the Caribbean (and it will probably be really hot in Arizona by that date)! Bikini, maybe?
Susanna: I will definitely wear my 1920s headband complete with feather, to match my book. I’m sure the crumbs from the morning’s breakfast will add sparkle to my face and sweatshirt as well, when caught in just the right glare from the lamp in my son’s bedroom where I do all my zoom calls.
L.A.: Well, since we went to Michigan several weeks ago to take care of my mom, I have a limited supply of options. But I of course packed a pair of red shoes. ️ So I’ll wear my black n white blouse and black slacks – the only set I have that aren’t jeans – with my Art Deco choker and patent leather red shoes. And I will be holding Lane’s favorite whiskey sour! If I can get my hands on a tiara, I’ll wear that too;-).
Edith: L.A., I have two tiaras – I’d loan you one if I could!
Gabriel: Like my character Walker, I’ll be casual and comfortable, in a Hawaiian shirt of the day. No promises, but I’ll try to recruit Munchkin the Cat to make a cameo. Probability of success is nil.
Edith: In addition to the aforementioned slippers, I’ll don my maroon mother-of-the-groom dress from my son’s wedding two years ago. Where else am I going to wear it? Or maybe I should slip into my nineteenth-century Quaker dress, except…with my newly gained pandemic pounds, I probably won’t be able to fasten the thirty covered buttons…
Readers: What’s your favorite pandemic-coping strategy? Who will be tuning in to the awards ceremony?