Margaret Dilloway Reveals the Tale of a Female Samurai in Sisters of Heart and Snow
Few of us know much about Japanese history, let alone in the 12th century. In her third novel, Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway takes us into this world using the story of Tomoe Gozen, one of the only female samurai documented in Japanese lore.
Dilloway’s debut novel, How to Be an American Housewife, is a story of “mothers and daughters, and the pull of tradition” as well as one of secrets and redemption. It also looks at the effects of a marriage blending American and Japanese cultures, and Dilloway continues this theme in Sisters of Heart and Snow.
This new novel blends historical and contemporary fiction to tell a tale of families and sisters. The story is set in a time of clan warfare and political double-dealing. A time when the samurai lived by an austere, unwritten code of personal courage and loyalty, and influenced the course of history. A time when poetry was considered an essential element of civilized life, when women powdered their faces, painted their mouths small and red, and shiny, black flowing hair was a mark of beauty.
Dilloway’s personal history provided inspiration for this story. Not only is she the daughter of a Japanese mother and American father, but she also has family ties to Tomoe Gozen and Tomoe’s Minamoto clan.
I asked her when and how she discovered that she was descended from the same clan as Tomoe Gozen.
“My father had told us only a couple of years ago that my mother was from a samurai family, which my brother and I didn’t know before,” Dilloway said. “My mother had spoken of how her ancestors were the keepers of the royal seal– I don’t know what the correct term for that person is– but she hadn’t mentioned samurai. So I then began looking up samurai history.
“I was looking up clan names and saw that my mother’s family name, Makino, said it had originated from the Minamoto clan. Fingers crossed that the TV show WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? sees this and helps me micro-trace my family history!”
According to Tale of the Heike, an epic war story that recounts the defeat of the Taira clan by the Minamoto clan, Tomoe Gozen ‘was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swords-woman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka [one of the Minamoto leaders and Tomoe’s lover] sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
The most interesting thing Dilloway discovered about Tomoe Gozen was that, “Samurai women all fought in order to defend their homes while the men were gone. But Tomoe was actually a captain who led men during an era when women really had no autonomy. She was not noble born, like Empress Jingu (another warrior who was said to lead a war) therefore you could guess that she would have had to be a real natural talent who worked very hard during her early years.”
It is no wonder Margaret Dilloway chose to feature Tomoe in one of her novels.
Dilloway’s fictional account of Tomoe Gozen is woven into a present-day story of two sisters, Rachel and Drew, whose mother Haruki was the mail-order bride of their father Killian Snow. Though suffering from dementia, in a rare lucid moment Haruki tells Rachel to retrieve a book from her sewing room. That book tells the story of Tomoe Gozen and Yamabuki, her sister of the heart.
Dilloway chose to emphasize the contemporary portion of the story rather than the historical. When I asked her why she made that choice, she told me, “I tried writing it as evenly split, but then both stories didn’t feel long enough. Instead, I expanded the contemporary sister story and used Tomoe to inspire them, much as she had inspired me. I treated the historical parts as snippets of a book-within-a-book, a longer version of what I did in How to be an American Housewife and The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns [Dilloway’s second book].”
Switching back and forth between the lives and relationships of Rachel and Drew and the story of Tomoe and Yamabuki, Sisters of Heart and Snow reveals important truths about family ties, parenthood, love and life.
Killian Snow is the primary source of family dysfunction, and the reason why Rachel and Drew have grown apart. Rachel has had almost no contact with her father since he threw her out of the house more than twenty years earlier. Drew, whose relationship with her father is distant and difficult, recalls that her friends thought he was charming, but: “To his family he was someone else. It was like he erected a new and happy public face every day that slowly crumbled into dust by the time he got home, revealing his true nature.”
Haruki Snow has a secret, one that her husband constantly threatens to reveal in order to tyrannize her. As a teenager Rachel recognizes that her mother “had her own demons. And because of those, she’d be unable to be a mother in the way I needed a mother.” Rachel is determined to do better with her own children, Quincy and Chase, and create a family unit where love and respect nurture their relationships.
After a close childhood, Drew and Rachel grew apart and now neither woman understands the other. As Haruki’s book is being translated, Rachel and Drew struggle to understand one another and their mother’s legacy through the actions and wisdom of Tomoe and Yamabuki.
When Rachel and Drew were children, their mother taught them the Japanese phrase ichi-go, ichi-e explained as: “All you get is one chance.” Or, as their father says, “You don’t get do-overs.” This phrase is repeated in the story of Tomoe and Yamabuki and referred to on subsequent occasions as present-day events unfold and both women personalize the meaning of this saying. Through wisdom like this imparted by 12th century Japanese women, the sisters also learn “how so many tiny accidents lead us to who we are”, that “good medicine tastes bitter in the mouth”, that “every woman is a tiger when she defends her child”, “that there are times when being strong means you must accept your weakness”.
I asked Dilloway why she chose to have Rachel’s voice in first person and Drew’s voice in third person.
“The mystical (or very, very bizarre, depending on who you ask) thing about being an author is that characters speak to you in certain ways, and you transcribe their voices in the manner that feels most natural. I heard Rachel’s voice as an internal monologue– I was in her skin looking out at the world–so I wrote her in first person. I had more of an outsider’s view of Drew, so she’s in third.”
Ultimately both women appreciate that their mother did the best she could for them and that it isn’t enough to be sisters of blood, they must also, like Tomoe and Yamabuki, be sisters of heart.
About the contributor: M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel Lies Told in Silence is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.