Earlier this week, Allison Amend shared the facts she had about the real Frances Conway and how she became the protagonist of Enchanted Islands. Allison is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
My latest novel, Enchanted Islands, is about the life story of an unlikely spy, a middle-aged Jewish woman who travels to the Galápagos Islands with her husband, Ainslie, a naval intelligence officer, to spy on the Germans living there.
My protagonist Frances Conway (based on a real-life resident of the Galápagos Islands, though perhaps not a spy, and perhaps not Jewish) may not be Mata Hari or a member of the Bletchley Circle, but she had her small but important role to play in the underreported South American theater: South America, and specifically the Galápagos Islands, was the site of myriad covert activities in during World War II.
The Galápagos Islands are of strategic naval importance. 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, they played a significant role in the United States’ victory in the War of 1812: Captain David Porter captured three armed British whaling vessels that had stopped at the Islands to gather fresh water and tortoises to put in the hold to feed its men. (There’s an apparently apocryphal story that sailors put mail in the Floreana Island post office barrel with their destination, which allowed the United States to find them).
Flash forward about 120 years or so and the Galápagos were again a strategic stronghold. The United States feared that the Japanese navy would muster in the Galápagos and from there attack the Panama Canal, which would have crippled American supply lines. In response, the United States Air Force built a base on the Island of Seymour North, or Baltra, familiarly known as The Rock.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, rumors were swirling that Hitler had included South America in his plans for world domination sooner rather than later. German spies had infiltrated Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and other countries, engaging in intelligence gathering and subterfuge. Additionally, Spain was transferring paper intelligence and equipment from South America to Berlin. Roosevelt possessed what was likely a British forgery of a map purporting to show Hilter’s plans to divvy up South America among the Axis powers and subsequently invade northward. Roosevelt used this map to help convince America to enter the war; it was essentially the Niger yellowcake document of the previous century.
When the real Frances and Ainslie Conway moved to the Galápagos Islands in 1937, they lived for six months on Santiago Island with an Ecuadorian family and a lone Norwegian for company. After six months, they were forcibly moved by the Ecuadorian government to Floreana, which had a history of housing Germans (though by the time Frances and her husband arrived, there was only one German family left). The speculation that Frances and Ainslie were government agents sent to spy is based in part on Ainslie’s military past and an anonymous feasibility study for an air base on Floreana Island, which he most likely authored.
In making my fictional Frances Conway a Jewish spy, I placed her in a situation where she must lie about her culture and religion. As the stakes get higher and higher (at one point, the United States’ security is at risk), the tension this subterfuge creates stresses her to near her breaking point, forcing her to draw on reserves she wasn’t aware she possessed to save the day.
Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the Independent Publisher Book Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the novels Stations West (a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award) and A Nearly Perfect Copy. She lives in New York City.