“Tiny miracles”: Sara Ackerman’s Red Sky Over Hawaii
Stories about World War II remain popular with readers of historical fiction, with a wealth of settings and situations that claim attention. The depth and authenticity of such books comes from historical accuracy, and in Red Sky Over Hawaii (MIRA, June 2020), author Sara Ackerman’s third novel, extensive research underlies her focus on events around the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Red Sky, a bereaved young woman creates a safe haven for a diverse “found family” at a refuge in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (aka Volcano).
Ackerman delves into the events, everyday language, places and the food of the time. She trawls through through books, interviews, old photos and films to confirm essential details. Her best sources are firsthand accounts from survivors and her own familiarity with Hawaii. “For me, setting is a huge part of the story. And this book was fun to write because Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (aka Volcano) is one of my favorite places in the world. There is a vast and unearthly beauty there, with a rainforest and ecosystem unique to the Hawaiian Islands. Not to mention an active volcano!”
Local lore also features in the story, as Ackerman explains. “I think it would be impossible to grow up here and not have the local legends and traditions influence you. Madame Pele is the Hawaiian volcano goddess known as she-who-shapes-the-sacred land and you will see her in so much of the art here on the Big Island. I couldn’t write a book about the volcano and not include Pele, who in my mind is like mother nature herself. There is also an undeniable energy about the place that I wanted to portray in the novel without seeming hokey. If you’ve ever been to Volcano maybe you’ve felt it?”
Ackerman enjoys “placing fictitious characters into real world settings and turning them loose”. Her novels have an energy and clarity that reflect light on historical events, rather than having the history drag the characters along a timeline. The author’s knowledge and imagination combine to portray the daily experiences of the people of the time. Despite the complexities of WWII, Ackerman’s engaging novels – “more about people than any particular event” – always stay true to the bigger historical picture.
The importance of family also underpins this novel. Fortunately for her, Ackerman is able to call her mother with questions like What did you eat for dinner during the war? or Could you get ice cream in Honoka’a in 1944? The author says that this process is “fun both for me and for her, though the remembering is often bittersweet.”
Ackerman chose to write a story about the connections between people when she discovered records of a German couple who were detained in a camp, leaving their young daughters behind to cope alone. “In Hawaii,” she explains, “we are such a mix of races and ethnicities, I wanted to highlight the humanness that brings us all together. Also, since I was writing about a real house at Volcano built in anticipation of an invasion, my imagination took off running about what kind of people might have ended up there. It certainly would have been a mixed plate, of people helping friends and neighbors. The man who built the house (Herbert Shipman) was also instrumental for helping save the native Hawaiian nene goose from extinction and so I had to include two nene geese in the story.”
Animals play a supporting role here, amplifying the emotions and the action as they react to the people and events around them. The fictional family’s Great Dane, Sailor, expresses her fear, distress and joy in the unmistakeable language of dogs. Like much of the novel, Sailor is rooted in reality: “Before writing Red Sky Over Hawaii, I had fallen in love with Sailor, an adorable Great Dane on Instagram – yes, I follow a few animals! I asked her mom if I could make her a character in my book. She said yes, and I wrote her in as a kind of side-kick who helps young Coco deal with all of her fear and anxiety over her parents being taken away. Sadly, several months into my writing, Sailor suddenly passed away. I was heartbroken for her family, but they gave me their blessing to keep going. I feel honored to be able to keep her memory alive and I feel like she was an integral part of the book.”
The absence of women’s experiences from official historical records can prove challenging for researchers. Ackerman was able to source National Parks records of what Volcano was like during the war. “I also had a few kupuna (elders) here that shared their memories. One woman who I interviewed had written notes of such things as what they did to entertain themselves, what kind of makeshift ice box they had, what the road from Hilo to Volcano was like, what crops the Japanese farmers at Volcano were growing. Those kinds of details are tiny miracles for a desperate author.”
Ackerman’s next book will also combine WWII history with engaging characters, placing a love story at its core. “Right now, in the piece I’m writing (Radar Girls, about the top-secret Women’s Air Raid Defense), the timeline is quite hard and fast as it spans between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.”
As her bio says, “Sara writes books about love and life, and all of their messy and beautiful imperfections.” Red Sky Over Hawaii is an engaging example.
About the contributor: Clare Rhoden is a writer and reviewer from Melbourne, Australia. Her novel The Stars in the Night is about the experiences of Australians during the Great War.