A Long-Running Island Love Affair: The Codebreaker’s Secret by Sara Ackerman
BY AJ LYNDON
Sara Ackerman is unlikely to stop writing novels set in Hawai’i any time soon. This is good news for fans of her books. They could almost be called a series, but in fact each story features different characters and sometimes different time periods, although World War II is a recurring theme.
In many ways, as in her previous four novels, Hawai’i is the real hero of The Codebreaker’s Secret (MIRA Books 2022). The book’s dedication (Hawai’i has my heart) is an early indication of this, but many linguistic and other references to Hawaiian culture permeate every scene.
Ackerman says that Hawai’i is ‘both unique and misunderstood’. The islands were deeply affected by the war years. Both sides of her family were there during those times. She grew up on their wartime stories. Despite martial law, rationing, blackouts, racism and exploitation, people banded together to support each other through the tough times.
‘I really do feel like Hawai’i is its own character in the books,’ Ackerman agrees, adding that she tries her best to portray it realistically, as the multi-faceted place that it is, a place of great raw beauty. Yet it is not ‘all rainbows and coconut trees’.
The Codebreaker’s Secret is her first dual timeline novel. The earlier of the two timelines is set in 1943, during her favoured time period of World War II. Ackerman says that she has always enjoyed a good dual timeline novel, and ‘I figured it was time to try my hand at it’. It proved to be an even harder challenge than she expected. After talking to other authors to see how they approached the writing, she decided to write the 1943 story first, ‘so that I knew what happened’, and then layered in the 1965 storyline.
Events during the second timeline take place 20 years after the end of the war, during the grand opening of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller it was the first resort hotel on the island.
Deciding where to slip in the 1965 chapters was tricky she says, because of the need not to give things away – all ‘part of the magic of fiction’.
Linking the two timelines is the character Matteo Russi, the starting point for the plot. Ackerman wanted to write about a pilot on a top-secret mission and show him during the war, and then years later.
Ackerman has a graduate degree in psychology, so has always been interested in the psychological effects of war on combatants. ‘The things that these men went through was unthinkable,’ she says, and in this particular mission, (based on a true story), there was also some moral ambiguity. Trauma was not really talked about at the time. No one knew how to deal with shell shock, nor with the effects of war on internees, POWs and the civilians dealing with war on their doorstep on a daily basis.
Her interest in codebreaking emerged while working on her second novel, The Lieutenant’s Nurse (MIRA Books 2019). Reading about a shadowy, underground, top-secret place called the Dungeon, and its importance to the war effort, she knew she would like to write about it. A later discovery of the huge role that women played in codebreaking on the Japanese codes and ciphers gave her the Hawai’i tie-in that she needed.
Ackerman’s personal library provided much of the necessary detail on Pearl Harbor. But codebreaking was a whole new research area. In addition to reading specialist books on the activities and training of the men and women codebreakers, Ackerman took on the added challenge of learning the difference between a code and a cipher and trying to gain a rudimentary understanding of JN-25, the Japanese Naval Code that was allegedly unbreakable. ‘That these women were able to learn all of this in such a short time is nothing less than amazing,’ she says.
Her next book, Her Most Perilous Flight, will be set in 1927 during the golden age of flight and is loosely based on the infamous Dole Air Race. A dual timeline story, the events will take place on Hawai’i Island (the Big Island, as it used to be known). ‘It’s been fun veering away from the war years,’ she says, but as to veering away from Hawai’i? Ackerman says she has many other book ideas, but all are set at least partly in Hawai’i. ‘To me … it is simply home.’
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in the Victorian Central Highlands. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil Wars. She is currently writing her third novel. You can follow updates on her blog.