It's 1942, and Harry Flynn journeys into a world of tigers, elephants, and Himalayan Mountains. He is sent to the China-Burma-India Theater to build a supply road from India to China. With the help of Merrill's Marauders and the Mars Task Force, they must stop the Axis Powers from controlling all the land between the European Front and the Pacific Ocean. In an exotic world with Naga headhunters, opium-smoking Kachin tribesmen, and marauders who scorn both life and death, Harry forges unlikely friendships. It's a time when boys are forced to come of age on the battlefield and Harry has to find what makes life worth living or die. The lessons learned in World War II apply to all wars, where young soldiers walk away carrying unspeakable memories about the lives that could have been. Behind the Forgotten Front shows us that history is about facts driven by passions and sometimes mistakes made by real people.
I must admit, I was leery about going to eastern Russia and renting a room from a large Tartar family. How do you communicate when you only speak English? But I was encouraged by the AirBnB sales pitch. “Everyone who visits, loves Grandma’s soup.” My Kazan taxi driver thought otherwise. He told me it was a rip-off and that he’d drive me back to a real hotel. Yet when this Russian family of four-generations welcomed me into their two-bedroom home and sat me down to eat before I could unpack my bags, I knew I’d made the right decision. Until Grandma stood up, wiped her hands on her apron, waddled over to me, then opened my mouth and inspected my teeth to see if they were real. When she was convinced they were, she gave me a big toothless smile and shuffled back to her seat. After that, we bonded. Through my phone app she told me how her family held covert Muslim worship services in their home during the cold war and how she taught other Tartans how to speak Russian so they could get jobs, otherwise they’d starve. And when I left, she gifted me with a small bar of fresh scented soap—from a Russian with love. You never know when you'll make a new friend.
I’m lucky. I get to walk my dogs along the San Francisco Bay every day. And I love watching the shoreline during the winter rains when everything is at its extreme best and worst. No one is out—and it’s quiet—except for the squawking seagulls and flighty shorebirds. I particularly like following the tide's ebb and flow at dawn and dusk, when the sky is thick with low hanging clouds. While my dogs sniff the scrubby vegetation along the rocky shore or roll in the mud, my imagination takes flight to the past and sometimes the future. In my mind, I re-live those days when the water was so high that it seeped over the rock outcrops and flooded into the streets. And I think about the times when the full moon pulled the tide out so far that the mudflats were thick with tiptoeing migrating birds. I look up and see planes coming in for a landing at the nearby airport from somewhere else, and wonder whether they will soon be shuttles from outer space. Or will we be underwater with global warming? Some readers of my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, have said that weather is one of the characters that moves the story along—isn't that what it does in real life.
Sometimes the most challenging part of a journey is letting go—not knowing where you’ll be next—discovering something about yourself that you’d never have seen had you fixed your path. Don’t be afraid. But don’t be stupid, either. I’m an international traveler, often going abroad to write. And although I’ve reserved a room in Jordan with seven other ex-pats I’ve never met before for this spring, I still have goals I set for what I want to accomplish while I’m there. It’s the people and the land that open my eyes and my heart. One such story is from Russia, the region where Rudolf Nureyev was born. I had a room in a Muslim family’s home. I couldn’t speak Russian. They couldn’t speak English. But I got along marvelously with the eighty-year-old grandmother. She even had me open my mouth to show her that all my teeth were real. Then she shared her story about holding clandestine religious services in her home during the Stalin era. In most cases, you get to choose your journey. But there are times where you must follow the path placed in front of you, be it an illness, a loss of friendship, or a war. Those detours in life sometimes bring the greatest reward and most growth.
Do you ever wonder what if—I fell in love with someone who was no good for me—I met a serial killer—I lost everything that made me who I am? I ask these kinds of questions whenever I write. They’re uncomfortable; they make us think twice, they’re the reason we read books that take us out of our day to day lives and into another world—a safe place, where we can explore what others would do. Be it Science Fiction or Historical Fiction; my stories always have a social justice theme, where I ask: What if things were different? How would they be? I don’t plan on changing anyone, but I hope to prompt my readers to—see life through a different lens—try on a new perspective—reflect on who they are versus who they want to be. I write because I question life, and I want my readers to do the same. In my novel, Behind the Forgotten Front, Harry Flynn wanted to be a soldier—a fighting soldier. He got his wish, but did he become who he really wanted to be? As we begin a new decade, I challenge you to ask yourself: Who have I become? What do I want out of my journey in life? #Happy New Year
Fruitcake is a tradition in my house. But, I’m the only one eating it. It kicks off the #holidays with good smells and lots of jokes. That is when I’m home. One year I spent Christmas in India. I was on the island of Majuli, a sand bar in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. It's famous for the clay masks they use as props in an exotic dance with dissonant music. Most of the inhabitants are Buddhist monks. You see red flowing robes everywhere. That night, in the sky, a bright star brought back memories of Christmases past, and like others who couldn't be home for the holidays, it reminded me of what I treasured most--#happyholidays to you.
...or you'll give up on life. Every year I sign my Christmas cards, 'Here's hoping your year is filled with happiness and good health.' Recently, I learned the meaning of good health. Always one to hike 300 miles, climb the tallest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, this year, I was dealt my payback card. Within three months of each other, I had both hips replaced and eye surgery. I guess it was all that hard living that caught up with me. Instead of traveling around the world, I was stuck at home—finishing my new SciFi novel. Life was going to go on regardless of being laid up, so I used the time to improve my writing skills. I had been in a rut, writing more and more of the same thing without forcing myself into the back seat to see where I was going wrong. “What do you mean there isn’t enough …? By not giving up, and making my novel three times longer than it should be, I’ve seen what works. Now I’m trying to cut out what doesn’t. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, life goes on even during a war on Christmas Day. It’s a time to be grateful and hold on to happiness, or you’ll give up on life.
Each year I travel to a different country. So, every 365 days, I learn how to say thank you in a new way. There are English speakers in most places, but I want to reach out and acknowledge everyone who is kind to me. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, success in reaching Myitkyina—a turning point in the war—is placed on the shoulders of a single Kachin guide, Nau. He helps the Allies, but he also points out that we’re strangers in his land, and we need to respect him if he is to help us. “How can I see light in man who doesn’t honor light in me?” We have become a worldwide community, no longer limited to partnering with just people from our own country. The editor for my WWII book is from Australia. I received fact-finding help from a guide in Myanmar. And my writers' group has members from Israel, Puerto Rico, and China. With Cyber Monday coming up, it reminds us how dependent we are on technology and how our way of communicating is changing. As we move into a new dialect of abbreviations, let us not forget how to say a few simple words, like Thank you. #BlackFriday #BlackFriday19 #BlackFriday2019
What better way to get someone's attention than to whisper? Some words I can't do without. Whisper is one of my favorites because it makes the reader listen harder. I have my characters whispering a hairs breath away or in the dark of the night. It's hard to find other words or describe the gentle sound of someone imparting such intimate information. Periodically, I search my document to make sure I'm not using one word too often. As hard as I try to mix it up, whisper is usually a keeper. I just try to paint a clearer picture of the character passing along the sensitive news.
Writing a book is like preparing a battle plan. There are a lot of skirmishes that keep the story going. These mini-challenges are expected as part of more significant strategic operations or stages in the character arc. Winning the battle in war or character growth is the primary goal of the plan. My book battle plan looks a lot like short-term and long-term goals in an outline format. Just like regular goals, it’s hard to have it all filled in at once. I’m continually updating and adding to my storyline battle plan to make sure I don’t miss anything. I try to set timelines for each of my drafts (1) first draft – or what I call my vomit version (2) second draft is when I plant the development seeds and background information (3) third draft is to make sure there’s a clear voice and character arc and (4) fourth draft should be the polished version. Unfortunately, I never stick to my deadlines, but I do try to reach my goals. Maybe a little late with a 2a and 3d draft inserted along the way. In the front of my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, I have several maps with real battle plans. Maps like these were used in Operation Longcloth to win the war.
Night scenes create automatic suspense. But writing about what happens in the dark means adding light cues. Where do they come from? What do they highlight? And how to make them seem real, not forced. The moon, candles, and bright windows are ways to set the mood. Shadows and what they show, yet hide, are fun, too. And in the dark, the senses other than sight are stronger. So, I use darkness to set the scene. But you have to feel the night, to take your reader there. Otherwise, it comes across flat. Having worked with a man from India, I knew many people went out in the evening to take advantage of the relief from the day's heat. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, I brought the protagonist to a night market to show a different side of India. “The smell of incense draws me towards a thin line of smoke that dissolves without a trace in the night.” But, as you know, the evening is also a time of sexual intrigue. “I strain my eyes, adjusting to the shadows in the night until I see Reginald’s toothy grin. ‘I know where to find young, juicy meat to satisfy every aching part of a man’s body.’” My advice, use the night to heat up your story.
So many times, I’ve put myself on a path of no return then asked whether it was the right thing to do. Like hitchhiking around the United States by myself when I was 18. Walking 300 miles alone on the Camino Santiago last year. And logging-in years behind a computer writing a book. I can tell you some pretty chilling stories about my cross-country travel—being stuck in the boondocks with a driver zoned out on drugs and a rifle in his back seat. Or leaving my backpack in a hostel that closed down for the season with no way to get in and 200 more miles to go across Spain. The scariest was whether I’d give up on my novel after I’d given so much of myself to it. But I’d always think back to what a friend once said. “It’s not what I do that I regret, it’s what I don’t do.” In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, my protagonist is a young, arrogant man ready to find adventure by going to war. Once he volunteers, and sees the consequences, he wonders if he’s a coward because he wants to live. We need to stretch ourselves, and sometimes that means facing fear. But always keep a way out in your back pocket.
My mind was busy making up inventions and going to other worlds. What if there was an 8th day of the week between Sunday and Monday? Where was it, and how could I get there? Or wouldn’t it be nice if my mind had a box in it that would save everything I read rather than half of it going out the other ear? This was before computers and virtual reality. Right now, I’m writing a young adult science fiction novel where I can apply my engineering and biological science background. I get so caught-up using in my futuristic gadgets in my stories, that I expect to find them on my kitchen countertop when I get up for coffee. I was also a big comic fan, digging under my brother’s beds for all the super-hero magazines. Someday soon, we’ll be visiting planets like Krypton if they aren’t destroyed in intergalactic battles. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, my protagonist carried a portable walkie-talkie. With the battery pack, it weighed 40 pounds. The long-distance radios they used back then, needed generators. Today, cell phones weigh less than a pound and go around the world. We have come so far since WWII, and I know we will go even farther in the next 75 years.
While writing Behind the Forgotten Front, I read about Joe Doyer in a number of historical accounts of the war. But it wasn’t until my sister sent my father’s diary to me, and Doyer’s name popped out from those pages did Joe become a real person in my mind. He was someone my dad knew—someone my dad respected—someone who was a surrogate father to our boys fighting far from home. With so much travel to faraway lands, I know I should be writing a diary. I’ve lived through civil war in Guatemala, escaped a political uprising in Thailand, and watched American bombers fly overhead in Turkey en route to Syria. Always one step ahead of disaster, I returned safely to the comfort of home. Sometimes I think I leave so I can relive that sense of homecoming: more knowledgeable about the world and relieved to be back. Although Doyer never returned home, I know he lived on in the hearts of the soldiers who did make it back, like my dad.
Yes, I'm one of those. Have you ever missed a connection because your flight was late? I do my international travel with a carry-on and day pack. This means I have to be very judicious about what I pack, especially since, as a writer I travel with a laptop—but no sleeping bags. Consequently, being a ‘one to three-star’ traveler, I have ended up with pneumonia. Like the time in Myanmar when the first-class boat I was on, which was basically a metal 8x8 foot box shared with three other people, got grounded on a sand bar, and we were stranded there all night. Then on the connecting train, the other passengers couldn’t shut the cabin’s windows. It wasn’t until they were gone with the weather below freezing that I woke to find myself alone and frost outside. Where were the antibiotics when I needed them? In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, was like any good military politician. He wanted to get the press to the front so they could sell his story. But in Myitkyina, he had the writers and photographers flown in before the battle was over. No one was prepared—or happy.
I just finished writing my young adult SciFi book: that is the first draft. But it’s not time to break out the champagne, even though I’m ready to celebrate. It means I have a good plot. Now I have to go back and scrub it to make sure I’ve planted the right clues, and the cadence is in sync. It’s like winning a crucial battle but not the war. There were many turning points in my book Behind the Forgotten front. One critical battle was infiltrating the airfield at Myitkyina, where the Axis airplanes departed from to shoot down our boys flying the Hump: the Himalayas. I loved writing the scene. It brought into play so many code names, like In the Ring, Merchant of Venice, and End Run. Unfortunately, the war didn’t stop there, but it was a decisive moment for the China-Burma-India Theater. In 2014, I traveled to Myitkyina to see the airfield. It’s under Myanmar military control, now. They’re fighting a different battle there today—one where the government wants to take over the land squatted upon in the Kachin and Shan states. This is the terrain where Merrill’s Marauders, Mars Task Force, the African-American battalion building the ‘road to nowhere’ and Chinese X Force passed through in WWII. Today they’re fighting over jade, rubies, and opium.
I’ve written historical fiction, SciFi, travelogues, and somehow, social justice can’t keep its nose out of my plots. I don’t like to be preachy, but I seem to gravitate towards characters who haven’t been given a fair break in life. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the other side of the railroad tracks, but there’s always an element of hope at the end. I started writing Behind the Forgotten Front, a story about World War II in the China-Burma-India theater, after my father died. He left a diary of his time in the war, but could never write the book himself. War in itself is a social justice statement, but once I got into the characters, I saw what it did to the men who lived. Back then, if you said someone had post traumatic stress disorder, they'd ask, “Say what?” PTSD is an illness that never goes away. But it can get better. Unfortunately, the men from WWII promised not to speak about what happened in the war for fifty years, except with each other. I remember Pfeifer coming to visit my dad at Christmas. It was a healing time for both of them. I guess writing BTFF was a salve for me too. It showed me a lot about my dad and made me more forgiving.
The one where the aisles were wide enough for you to squeeze by—sideways. Where the smell of moldy paper and a cold draft added to the quest of finding the perfect story hidden somewhere inside. And at the cash register, the owner sat with feet propped on a stool, blanket wrapped around shoulders, book in hand, lost in some imaginary tale. Back then, I wasn’t a customer; I was another character wandering through this imaginary world. Like most writers, my house is filled with books, paperbacks, and hard copies, that snatch me away from the mundane routines of life. I love it when friends come to visit, and I find them dragging a well-read novel over to the couch, forgetting why they really stopped by. Like the skill of selling books and the way we read them, the art of writing letters is changing too. In my story Behind the Forgotten Front, Earl asks Harry to write a letter to Lester’s family. He says “It just doesn’t seem right getting a telegram saying, ‘Sorry your son’s dead. Thanks for raising him, loving him, then sending him to help Uncle Sam. But he’s dead, and we got to move on.’” Many things in life have to move on. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes ….
I stepped on a clear squishy blob, that turned out to be something from another world. This thought made me wonder whether there's any truth to Steven Hawking’s supposition that an advanced alien civilization could invade and destroy humanity. Hawking said we don’t know what aliens are like, but we do know humans have a history of massacring other cultures. Why would a more intelligent organism not do the same to us? In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, there’s a scene with a young prostitute, where the protagonist, sickened by the thought of this girl with the red third eye living off her beauty, grabs her by both shoulders as if he can shake the little girl back into her. But she says she’s happy with her life. “Work as pretty girl or no work. You think it better I sit in street and beg?” Then she tells him, “Our bad luck make our character.” What if her parents hadn’t been poor and sold her? Whatever I stepped on, it looked alive, with red and blue streaks. And like the girl with the red third eye asked: “Why you not feel guilty ‘bout ripping my country apart?” I wondered whether an alien would think us nothing more than a bacteria colony to be wiped out.
This may sound cruel, but when I saw the ravaged remains from Dorian, I thought, this too shall pass. This is not the first time Mother Nature has ripped a page out of our lives and blown us in a new direction. I grew up where weather was the first order of conversation. It came with the coffee. In the winter, temperatures dropped down to -50 degrees Fahrenheit and in the summer, you could almost peel a layer of humidity off your skin. You learned not only to live with it, but in it. One winter, a group of us bared the biting wind and took a walk on the Mississippi River. Yes, I said walk ON the river. It gets that cold. But not cold enough to completely freeze the nine-foot-deep channel. Of course, one of us fell in. We whisked him out and stripped him down within seconds, each donating a layer for him to wear—not doing so would have been deadly. Weather is like that; it changes your life. So, writing about weather in my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, was as a natural. Not only did I talk about the mud slides, earthquakes, and floods in Burma, but the great dust bowls of the Depression in the USA. Like I said, weather changes your life.
Writing is a labor of love. Sometimes I'm so into it, that my characters seem more real than my dog sitting at my feet. Other times, I take my dog for a walk. For me, there are several stages in writing a novel. First, it's the "vomit" stage, where I let everything out before I lose it. Then in the second, or “clean-up” phase I add all the transitions, sensory details, and emotional revelations. Third stage is making sure I'm carrying my protagonist or plot through the “growth arc.” Last is the “polishing” stage—which I love too much. It's too easy to get caught-up in word-smithing. But I have to admit, when I finished Behind the Forgotten Front, it was as if someone else had written it for me. Just as Mrs. Muir had never been a ship's captain, I had never been to India or Burma nor taken part in a battle. So how could we have written scenes as if we were there? The people and places came to me like a ghost leading my hand over the keyboard, helping me tell THEIR story. Now that my book is finished, I'm still not sure whether someone’s ghost wrote it or if in those moments of throwing myself into it, I was actually there in my mind.
When I was in Myanmar (formerly Burma) there was either monstrous flooding with monsoon downpours or the rivers dried up so much that boats (the only form of transportation in some regions) got stuck in the middle of the channel. One night, while traveling down the Chindwin River, we hit a sandbar. ALL the men rolled up their longyi (traditional wrap), then got into the water and tried to push it back into the flow. But they had no luck. So we stayed stuck until morning. I was lucky, I was in a first class cabin, which was an 8x8x4 foot high tin box I shared with three other people. Between the cold water chilling the metal, the wind whistling through the 'impossible to close' sliding door," babies crying and people farting, I couldn't sleep. Putting that inconvenience aside, each year these people face losing their homes to mudslides and crops to the insufferably hot droughts. It's a never ending cycle they have learned to accept. In my book, Behind the Forgotten Front, I tried to show that in addition to fighting the enemy, sometimes the soldiers had to fight Mother Nature. And you can imagine who always won.
I have never fought in a war but having visited six continents and seen how the the rest of the world lives, I treasure my freedom. And I thank those who have protected it for me. In my travels, I've skirted civil wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Myanmar. There, I met ordinary men and women who died fighting for their rights. In my book Behind the Forgotten Front, I try to show that a war is not made up of battles every day. Sometimes it's running from a rouge baby elephant or listening to an opera in Darwin from a long range radio in the jungle. It's the simple things in life that we don't notice, but treasure them when we don't have them--like Peace.
My siblings and I grew up in the same house as my nephew, father and grandmother. Four generations listening to the same ghosts haunting the third-floor attic and climbing the same rickety back steps of our civil-war era home. It was one of those melting pot neighborhoods that surrounded a local park with the Irish in one corner, Italians in another, Germans in the third, and all the new immigrants in the last. Lots of different accents in the park and on the playground at school--the same elementary school my father and mother attended. But being brought up Catholic, when we reached high school age, we were segregated into all-boys or all-girls schools. Here's where my story diverges into my novel, Behind the Forgotten Front. In high school, my father cultivated a group of friends. And when I say group, I mean about forty guys, who stayed buddies their entire lives. They would get together every summer and Christmas with their families, and the children would either run relay races or we'd form a line to whisper in Santa's ear the gifts we wanted. I developed the character Bob, in Behind the Forgotten Front, off one of the fellas in my dad's group. Although my novel is fiction, many of the characters really lived.
In Behind the Forgotten Front, there is no character more unforgettable than General Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell. On May 1, 1942, General Stilwell marched 114 American, British, Chinese and Burmese men and women 14 miles per day, 105 steps per minute, through the jungles of Burma to the safety of India. With the Japanese on their tails, they crossed the Chindwin River at Homalin on May 12. The Japanese arrived a day later and were never able to catch up to them while they crossed the mountains into India. In 2014, to fact check my book, I took a boat down the Chindwin to Homalin. That region of Burma (now Myanmar) is still so remote, that one of the other passengers asked me if I was a missionary. They said there hadn't been a westerner in those parts for months. In 1942 the British abandoned their teak plantations, never to return. It was a different time, when racism was still strong. Little has changed today. Please take a look at my blog to get a glimpse of the people Stilwell and the 114 others saw along their journey to safety http://barbarahawkins-writer.com/2014/06/Stilwells-1942-retreat-from-Burma
Although Behind the Forgotten Front is fiction, many of the people in the book are not, like Ed Pfeifer. Growing up, I remember Ed visiting my family every Christmas on his way back from his teaching job in Arizona to his home in Michigan. He and my dad would sit in the living room, cigar in my dad's hand and pipe in Pfeifer's, and reminisce about the War. All us kids (there were seven of us) huddled around the corner, giggling and sneaking peeks, trying to catch bits and pieces of their conversation. But my mom would always find us and shoo us away. Many of you may know, but I didn't until I wrote the book, that the government had made the soldiers swear to fifty-years of secrecy. Imagine keeping all those life-wrenching memories bottled up inside for fifty years. I'm glad my dad had Pfeifer and Pfeifer had my dad to work out some of those scars. I only wish I had been able to hear more.
In the Burmese jungles of WWII, Merrill's Marauders penetrated the enemy line, without backup. For months at a time they would scout out an area before giving the green light to the infantry. Food would be dropped to them by parachute and those injured or too weak to continue were left along the side of the road for when the full battalion passed by. They were the misfits back home but given the name Galahad on the front, because they went where others refused to go.
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