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Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio (Plume; 320 pages; $15).

                Blackberry Winter, the new novel from Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow, is the October She Reads Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book, comment on reviews, meet Jio, and find out how she came up with the premise of the story by going to the She Reads web site.  There are some yummy giveaways you don’t want to miss either!

Click here for discussion and giveaways!

Jio is a novelist who knows how to pull at her readers’ heartstrings.  She draws you into a story, and, suddenly, you forget everything else around you.  The rest of the world falls away; you are immersed in Jio’s world.  That is how it was for me when I read her two previous novels.  Jio is back, and she has not lost her gift.  In fact, Blackberry Winter is now my favorite of her works.  Blackberry Winter is a mystery/love story with appealing characters, a strong plot, and a setting Jio knows well: Seattle, her home.

In Blackberry Winter, Jio focuses her narrative lens on two women, born decades apart, who have experienced deep loss and heartache.  Vera Ray trudges home to her three-year-old beloved son, Daniel, early one May morning in 1933.  Vera is struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the Great Depression.  Fresh from her shift at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, she steps out the door to a late-season snowstorm, or “blackberry winter” as it was once referred to.  To her horror, Daniel is nowhere to be found.  More horrible still: no one seems to want to help her find her son.

Fast-forward to present-day Seattle and to Claire Aldridge, a reporter for the Seattle Herald.  Her boss assigns Claire to cover their own blackberry winter.  Like Vera, Claire is struggling.  She recently suffered a terrible accident and endured the death of her baby.  Her marriage is falling apart.  She is unhappy to be given such a fluff piece and searches for an angle.  When she discovers Daniel’s disappearance, Claire is intrigued; she has her story.

In alternating chapters Jio tells the story chiefly from the first-person perspectives of Vera and Claire.  The “I” definitely made the novel more intimate.  I do not think Blackberry Winter would have had as much of an effect on me if Jio had told the story in the third person.

Initially, I was no fan of Vera’s.  I detested her inaction.  She is a woman who does not act; rather, she waits for other people, namely men, to act.  I wanted to shake her.  The more Jio delved into Vera’s character, though, the more I came to understand her.  Vera lived in the 1930s, during a time of economic crisis much worse than our own.  As a single mother, she had to work; she had no other choice.  Yet, many scorned her for working.  Upper-class women looked at her with contempt.  But they didn’t have to walk in Vera’s shoes, riddled with holes.  Vera’s story is truly a tragic tale and reminded me of the 2008 movie The Changeling, based on actual events.  In 1928 Los Angeles, a woman was reunited with her son who had been missing.  When she adamantly told the authorities that the boy was not her son, they vilified her and deemed her an unfit mother.

Claire, for me, was the star of this story.  I loved her spunk and her drive.  She really is Jio’s most likeable, relatable character.

Jio brings her dual time narratives together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion.  What she writes is unexpected, yet always plausible.  Once you start reading, you will want to finish this in one sitting.  The story is engaging; the characters are compelling; the setting is timely.  Jio’s themes of maternal love, loss, jealousy, redemption, hope, and healing will resonate with readers.

Blackberry Winter is a well-timed, beautifully told story from one of the masters of the dual time narrative.  I highly recommend it for fans of Sarah McCoy, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton, Jenna Blum, and Tatiana de Rosnay.

 

 

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Interview with Kristina McMorris

Interview with Kristina McMorris, Author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Kristina McMorris

 

Jaime Boler: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is your second novel.  What was your first book and what was the premise behind it?

Kristina McMorris: My debut novel, Letters from Home, was inspired by my maternal grandparents’ wartime courtship letters. Here is a brief summary: In the midst of World War II, a Midwestern infantryman falls deeply in love through a yearlong letter exchange, unaware that the girl he’s writing to is not the one replying. Woven around this tenuous thread are three female friends whose journeys toward independence take unexpected turns as a result of romance, tragedy, and deception, their repercussions heightened by an era of the unknown. It’s a story of hope and connection, of sacrifices made in love and war, and the chance encounters that change us forever.

Her debut novel, "Letters from Home"

JB: You and I share a mutual fascination with the 1980s miniseries North and South.  How did that story inspire you to write Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Years ago, an old family friend shared with me that he had fought for America while his brother served for Japan. I was captivated by the idea. But it wasn’t until a decade later, when I’d found my calling as a writer, that I remembered his story and realized what an amazing premise it would make for a novel. Combined, as you mentioned, with my undying love for the U.S. miniseries North and the South, wherein loved ones were labeled enemies overnight, I set out to write my book. But in the midst of research, I happened across an obscure mention of roughly two hundred non-Japanese spouses who had chosen to live in the U.S. war relocation camps voluntarily. I phoned my agent that very day and said, “This is it. I have my story!”

JB: I know you did lots of in-depth research for this book.  Did anything that you found surprise you?

KM: Aside from non-Japanese spouses living in the camps, other discoveries that shocked me were the cases of Japanese American men who became stuck in Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then, on account of their ancestry, were conscripted into the Imperial Army or Navy. I was also surprised to learn that you only had to be 1/16 Japanese to qualify for internment, and that even adopted Japanese American children were torn from their Caucasian families and placed in an orphanage in the camp.

I’m proud that I was able to weave these findings into my story, as I believe people should know these things happened.

JB: I read where you actually rode in a B-17, just as TJ does.  What was that like?

Kristina McMorris

KM: It was anything but a hard day at work! There was a maximum of only ten passengers allowed, and after takeoff, we were encouraged to roam the B-17 for the entire flight. It was incredible. I spent the majority of the flight in the nose-gunner’s seat, with nothing but Plexiglas beneath my feet. Flying over lush green farmland, I could imagine for a brief moment what it must have felt like to soar over English farmland during the ’40s. That is, until I reminded myself that there was a huge difference: nobody was trying to shoot down my aircraft—thankfully.

JB: In writing for the character of Maddie, you show such knowledge of music.  Do you play any instruments?

KM: As with most of my research, I relied on generous “experts” that made me look much wiser than I am! Although I used to play piano, I was clueless when it came to the violin. Fortunately, an old friend from high school is a violinist who attended a conservatory and continues to perform in a symphony. She and my husband, who used to play violin as a kid, were immensely helpful. I also learned a great deal from watching performances of the specific pieces on YouTube.

JB: Please describe what a typical day of writing is like for you.

KM: You mean a usual day of being pampered by my personal chef, maid, chauffeur, personal assistant, and… oh, wait, you’re referring to the actual not-so-glamorous life of an author, ha. Well, my alarm goes off at 6:30am, in order to get the kidlings ready for school. After doing dishes and tossing in a load of laundry, I’ll clear out my emails then take a quick shower. Next, I get into my comfy clothes and ugly fuzzy socks, and I park on the couch with my half-caff coffee and laptop to tackle writing, publicity and/or marketing. It’s a cyber sprint until the kids come home, at which point I give myself an extra hour to wrap things up before handling all the usual mom activities until the munchkins are in bed. I often work on my laptop while my hubby and I catch a little TV. Since I’m a night owl, I stay up until at least midnight, then hit the hay and wait for that dreaded alarm to go off at 6:30am. (The cycle reminds me a bit of the movie Groundhog Day actually.)

JB: My favorite character was Lane.  Do you have any favorites?

KM: Which of my children is my favorite? LOL. Bea, Jo, Eddie, TJ… I honestly enjoy every one of them, since I understand who they are and why. I suppose if I had to choose, however, I would say Kumiko. It takes time and effort to peel away her layers and gain her trust. She reminds me of that tough teacher we all had at one point in our lives who didn’t believe in giving A’s, so the day you actually earned an A from her—or in this case, her full approval—you appreciated it more than any others.

JB: Are any characters autobiographical?  If so, who?  I know many are based on actual people, particularly those you came across in your research.  Are any of your characters based on people you know?

KM: I’ve pondered the question a good amount when asked this in the past, and I think it’s the most accurate to say that my own personality is sprinkled throughout each of my characters, even the guys; in fact, mostly the guys!

As for basing characters on other real people, there’s only one person in the story that portrays an actual figure: Justin “Sam” Barry, the legendary USC coach. In order to feel comfortable depicting him, I researched as much as I could, but found very little about him. Luckily, the Sports Information Office Director at USC was kind enough to connect me with Coach Barry’s godson and namesake, who offered some helpful insight about the man’s demeanor.

JB: Were any of your ancestors victims of the Japanese internment?  If so, what happened to them?

KM: My father, an immigrant from Kyoto, was actually born after WWII, so our family didn’t have to face these challenges directly. Now, that’s not to say my parents didn’t encounter resistance from both sides of the family when they wanted to marry. My maternal grandfather had, after all, served as a U.S. Navy signalman on a Destroyer escort in the Pacific during WWII. On a side note, I will add that ironically my father’s birthday is December 7th, which of course is Pearl Harbor Day. In that way, I suppose I should have always known I was destined to write about this pivotal moment in history.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: Quite simply, the blank page. That blinking, taunting cursor is typically not my friend. I do, however, love to edit, which is what keeps me trekking away.

As for research that I found most challenging, it was definitely the Japanese POW camps. Reading about the senseless horrors humans are capable of inflicting upon each other—and even finding enjoyment in those acts—often left me in tears. Fortunately, surprising tales of wartime compassion would help alleviate those dark moments.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of researching and writing this novel?

 KM: I think the greatest thing I gained was a newfound admiration for the Japanese American veterans who often risked their lives in the name of democracy, despite their families being unjustly incarcerated by their own country. Also, the humbleness of those families and lack of resentment they held after being released continues to both astound and, though it might sound odd, inspire me. Their resiliency and determination to move on, regardless of hardships, is truly remarkable.

 JB: Do you think something so awful as relocating a people based on their race and keeping them corralled could ever happen again in our country?

KM: Sadly, it continues to happen to this day in other parts of the world. Do I think it could happen again in America? Given our current means of instant and mass communication, and thus widespread awareness, I think it’s unlikely on such a large scale; just imagine the protests that would occur if even a single neighborhood was forced out of an area due to race. That said, nothing is impossible. Lack of knowledge breeds ignorance, which largely fueled the hysteria that led to the Japanese American internment. And no doubt, cases of similar discrimination could be made following 9-11, affirming that learning about the past is vital for many reasons.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Bridge of Scarlet Leaves?

KM: In addition to being transported into another world, I hope readers gain a deep appreciation for real-life heroes they otherwise didn’t know existed, as well as knowledge about history too often brushed over. On a more personal note, if the story causes them to reexamine their own values and perspectives on other cultures, I really couldn’t ask for anything more.

JB: Are there any plans on making this book into a movie?

KM: Ooh, a red carpet stroll sure sounds nice. The truth is, my film rights agent at CAA is very enthusiastic and recently started shopping the book to producers. Realistically, even if it’s optioned, the chances of a book making it to the silver screen are slim—but hey, you never know! It’s definitely a fun thought, anyhow. And in the end, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my story published into an actual book that is reaching readers’ hands; that alone is an accomplishment I’m extremely grateful for.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

KM: Up next, my novella, The Christmas Collector, will be released in October in a holiday anthology titled A Winter Wonderland, headlined by Fern Michaels. In this contemporary story, Jenna Matthews, the daughter of a former hoarder, seeks catharsis through her career as an estate liquidator. However, while preparing for a sale just before Christmas—a season of overpriced “junk” exchanges she despises—she stumbles upon a shoebox of wartime memorabilia that reveals the secret past of an elderly woman (her young version is a minor character in Letters from Home), and soon leads Jenna on a hunt to understand the true value of keepsakes, holidays, and memories.

Other than that, I have two more novels on contract with my publisher. The first one is tentatively titled Through Memory’s Gate, which I’ll be diving into as soon as the whirlwind of my current book tour settles.

JB: And your readers look forward to them all!  Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.  I wish you much success.

The Subject of Our Interview--"Bridge of Scarlet Leaves"

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