Monday, August 19, 2013

Spy Island: The Story Behind the Story, a guest post by Sophie Schiller (plus giveaway)

Today Sophie Schiller is stopping by the blog with an essay that combines a personal story with details on the multicultural background of the Danish West Indies, the setting for her new historical novel Spy Island.  Knowing little about the colorful history of this part of the world, and gravitating as I do toward unusual settings, I was fascinated to read more about West Indies culture and how Sophie came up with her heroine and storyline.

Thanks to the generosity of the author, we have a giveaway opportunity at the end (the winner's choice of print or e-book), open internationally.

Spy Island: The Story Behind the Story
Sophie Schiller

First off, a big thank you to Sarah for inviting me guest blog on Reading the Past.

My father was something of a nonconformist, and when I turned eight at the height of the oil crisis in 1973, he picked my family up and moved us to the West Indies. At the time, I had no way of knowing how that move would affect me, but it ended up changing my life forever. The experience of growing up in St. Thomas (an island in the former Danish West Indies) became embedded in my soul. As I grew older and ventured out to explore the beautiful city of Charlotte Amalie—her palm-shaded alleyways, her curious Danish street names and architecture, her red-roofed houses—I became obsessed with a single, nagging question: Why aren't there more books that illustrate the rich, vibrant history of the Danish West Indies?

Looking like a bit of Denmark in the Caribbean: Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes in the late afternoon I would wander down to the waterfront to watch the ships bobbing in the harbor and the Dannebrog fluttering up on Denmark Hill. Invariably, my mind would start to wander. I would picture swashbuckling pirates staggering out of saloons, top-hatted Danish officials strolling into Fort Christian, and turbaned native women dancing the bamboula down by Market Square. But as the sun inched closer to the horizon, invariably I would trudge home, despondent that these colorful characters were long gone or long dead. Somewhere along the way, I decided to write my own novel to bring the past to life again. Since no one else had done it, then I would do it.

Fort Christian, the site of a suspenseful prison breakout scene in the novel.
(Wikimedia Commons)

One of the questions that often swirled in my head concerned the island name Maduro. Lots of Virgin Islanders are named Maduro; it's almost as common as Smith or Jones is in the States. But the name always struck me as odd. Certain island names such as Maduro, Robles, Hoheb, Fidanque, De Castro, Sasso, and Henriquez had an unmistakable Spanish-sounding ring to them. Where did these names come from? How did these inhabitants of a former Danish colony wind up with Spanish-sounding names? To my surprise, I learned that the name Maduro was actually a Sephardic Jewish name, brought to the island by 18th- and 19th-century immigrants whose roots spread all the way back to Holland, Portugal, and Spain. This surprising discovery made my curiosity grow by leaps and bounds.

Creole Sephardic women in the West Indies.

History relates that the name Maduro was adopted by 16th-century Conversos from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, who fled the Iberian peninsula for Holland in order keep their Jewish identity intact. These Spanish-Portuguese Jews later crossed the Atlantic and settled in tolerant Dutch colonies such as Recife (Dutch Brazil), Suriname, CuraƧao, and St. Eustacius, and later on in the Danish West Indies. As more Sephardic Jews colonized St. Thomas, they developed the island as an important commercial center, yet by the late 20th century, they were all but gone. All that was left was their Sephardic synagogue with its curious sandy floor, and the cemetery headstones with their curious Spanish-sounding names. But the people had disappeared. What happened to them? Where did they go?

St. Thomas' most famous Sephardic Jew,
Camille Pissarro.
Research pointed to Panama. In 1867, a devastating hurricane struck the island and wrecked the economy. When the situation failed to improve by the 1880s, many of the island's Sephardic Jews emigrated to Panama, then seen as the land of opportunity with the building of the Panama Canal. But not all of them left. It was easy for a bachelor to pick up and leave his home in search of fame and fortune, but by doing so they left behind scores of single women to languish in eternal spinsterhood. This interesting twist of history became the germ of my story.

I decided to focus on a Sephardic girl, Abigail Maduro, who is orphaned when her parents are killed in a railway accident along the Panama Canal, and she is then forced to live with her Aunt Esther, a bitter spinster, on the island of St. Thomas. With her facing a lifetime of poverty and despair, I wanted to see what would happen if a man were to suddenly appear who could change Abigail's fate for the better, a man who was running away from his own past. Furthermore, I wanted to see what would happen if this young man happened to be a German war deserter just as America was about to take over the islands and declare war on Germany.

I developed a plot in which an officer from a German U-boat (Erich Seibold) deserts his ship in the middle of the war and talks his way aboard a tramp steamer bound for the West Indies. When they reach the Danish West Indies, he jumps off to wait out the end of the war. On the island, Erich stumbles into Abigail, a sheltered, yet adventurous girl who sees in Erich a chance for friendship and greater purpose. But unbeknownst to them, Erich is being watched. The island has an embedded spy ring operating out of the Hamburg-America Line under the leadership of Lothar Langsdorff, who is also the German consul. When Langsdorff discovers a German deserter in his midst, he decides to exploit him to serve the Fatherland. Langsdorff blackmails Erich into committing sabotage. After a melee involving the Danish governor, Erich becomes a wanted German spy.

Danish Gendarme, Christian Livbjerg, circa 1916, with trusty revolver and sword.

The result is an action-packed adventure filled with Caribbean island lore, Old World Danish charm, blazing luger pistols, a mad Voodoo Queen, and a courageous, warm-hearted heroine who discovers the meaning of courage and love, and goes to great lengths to save the man she loves and her beloved island from a dangerous German spy. Above all, Spy Island brings to life all the beauty and color of a fading West Indian sugar colony in the last days of Danish rule.

Sophie Schiller was born in Paterson, NJ and grew up in the West Indies amid aging pirates and retired German spies. She was educated at American University, Washington, D.C. and lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she is currently working on a historical novel set during the Great Game in Tibet.


Spy Island by Sophie Schiller was published in 2013 by CreateSpace in paperback ($12.50) and as an ebook ($2.99).   For a chance to win a copy (print or ebook, your choice), please fill out the form below.  This giveaway is open internationally and will run through Monday, August 26th.  Good luck!

This giveaway is now closed.


  1. This sounds like a really interesting, exciting book.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Alex! It was my pleasure to share a piece of my writing journey with you. I also really appreciate the feedback!

  2. I've added this book to my 'to-read' list at GoodReads. The mix of history, setting, and very diverse characters is compelling, as is this glimpse of how Ms. Schiller came to write the book.

    1. Thank you Beth! My aim was to send the reader on an exciting journey to an exotic part of the world (with memorable characters) and I certainly hope I accomplished that!

  3. Anybody who wants, I'd love for you to join me on Facebook. I post beautiful pictures of the Danish West Indies as well as rare works of art from the Danish period. Please "like" me to get regular updates on this fascinating historical location:

    1. Thanks for the heads-up about your page - some great photos there!

    2. I promise to keep a steady stream of one-of-a-kind pictures and historical tidbits coming. This is the fun side of historical research!

  4. This sounds like a really good read, Sophie. I am adding it to my list of books to find. I love learning about new areas and cultures.

    1. Hi Lyn, so glad you enjoyed the article. When I wrote the book I had readers like you in mind who love to travel to new & exotic lands in the pages of a book. Let me know how you enjoyed it!