Nominally a story about a female spy for US Naval Intelligence who monitored German activity on the Galapagos island of Floreana during World War II, Amend’s tale is so much more. Frances Conway, aka Frances (Fanny) Frankowski or Franny Frank, is from a poor Polish family in Duluth, Minnesota; her desire to stay in school against her parents’ wishes leads her, and her best friend Rosalie, to run away to Chicago. Eventually Franny lands in San Francisco, and, at the mature age of fifty, when the US is on the brink of entering World War II, becomes a secretary in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
That’s where the real adventure begins. Franny is recruited to work with Ainslie Conway in his spying mission on Floreana. The Galapagos Islands were strategically important: from there, the US could protect the Panama Canal, and the location was perfect for refueling missions. Americans weren’t the only ones interested, however, and Ainslie and Franny’s job is to keep track of the other members of the isolated island community, who might be spies for other governments. Franny has kept secrets for years, so she’s good at this work, living one life with Rosalie and another with Ainslie, though her feelings tear her apart from the inside. She discovers that facing the truth can be dangerous, for her and everyone else.
Amend does a terrific job of creating relationships fraught with deception, that reflect changing attitudes toward women, Jews, and sexuality over the course of the 20th century. Her descriptions of life on Floreana resonate with back-breaking hard work and simple beauty, while even minor characters are fully formed. The real Frances Conway’s memoirs leave many gaps, and Amend’s work creates a believable, multi-faceted, and intriguing back story that readers will relish.