Girl In A Box — Using Current Events 30 Years Later

Ok. I confess. I’m a sucker for “modern” historical crime fiction — stories that go back to the recent past (ie Twentieth Century +) for their inspiration. I’ve written my fair share of them —  those of you who’ve read me know that.  But I’m always on the look-out for similarly themed crime novels, and this is one worth a look. The author, Sheila Dalton, has written a thriller that has its roots in Guatemala during the ’70s, as well as the present. It’s a harrowing story, filled with righteous anger and compassion in equal parts, and — well, let’s hear from the author directly. Here’s Sheila:

I briefly took part in an online discussion on using current events in fiction, and it got me thinking about my own book, a literary mystery called The Girl in the Box. The novel is set in Guatemala during the Civil War there in the seventies and eighties.

I visited Guatemala in the seventies, for a protracted four month stay. I went with a girlfriend in order to explore Central America. We fervently did not want to be “tourists” and rather naively set out to discover the “real” Guatemala. And we did see and hear things most tourists would not be privy to. We traveled on the same second-class buses used by the Maya, and stayed by choice in no-star accommodations in areas with a high native population.

Our Spanish was poor, our “Mayan” (there are many dialects) non-existent, but our interest in the people was genuine, and they responded for the most part in a friendly way. I remember sitting on a bus one day and feeling my hair being stroked. A Mayan woman behind me was running her hand down it and exclaiming with a broad smile, “Soft!” It was the start of a limited but fascinating conversation. She was on her way to market in Chichicastenanga to sell her chiles and chickens (clucking and squawking in a box on the seat beside her).

We also saw Mayan men taken of a bus by government soldiers, and never returned. The fear on the bus was palpable, no one was talking, and it was several days before we understood that the men had been killed.  And longer still before we discovered that the church in one of the villages we visited had been converted into a prison where rebels were tortured. You could hear their screams at night, the locals said, but we did not stay long enough to test this for ourselves.

Back in Canada, my friend and I became involved with Latin American groups for immigrants and victims of torture. My own involvement was brief, though I volunteered for Amnesty International for many years because of my experiences. My friend returned to Guatemala before I did and met a group of young, idealistic activists who were involved at great danger to themselves in teaching g the Maya to read.

The situation was terrible, with the government sending out troops to massacre whole Mayan villages. I found out that the Maya were caught in the middle – if they helped the guerrillas even by simply providing food or lodging, they were in grave danger from the military. But not all guerrillas were noble idealists; many retaliated violently if the Maya refused to help them. Most Maya understandably wanted to remain neutral, but they were hard pressed to do so. Many innocent people were killed by both sides, though the power of the military being so much greater, the number of Maya massacred by the government was by far in the majority to those hurt by the rebels.

Thirty years later, I finally completed a novel that used some of what I had learned, and much of what I had researched, about the Civil War. Though the events were no longer “current’ they were at the time I first began taking notes,  and therefore much of what I think about using current or real events in novels still applies.

First of all, I like fiction that deals with “real” events, for novels can often help us understand human nature, and figure out our own place in relation to the world.  But why did I write a mystery? Because the mystery is not about “who” but “why” and centres on a young woman who is trying to deal with the effects of the trauma of the death of her lover at the hands of someone she also loved who was far more traumatized than she.

If I thought my book was exploiting the people and circumstances I found in Guatemala, I wouldn’t have written it. I think that’s partly why it took so long for the story to “gell” in my mind. I was struggling with my desire to entertain as well as engage readers, in addition to informing them. I wanted to make sure my focus was on understanding political realities, giving them context for English-speaking readers, and, hopefully, providing insight that press reports alone could not do.  I wanted to write a book that would be read and enjoyed that also might make readers feel empathy for people a world away, and bring their struggles, hopes and dreams alive.  I can only hope I succeeded.

Hope you’ll take a look. You can find it right here.