Paradise Misplaced: A novel of love, honor, betrayal, and murder in a time of war
In Paradise Misplaced, author Sylvia Montgomery Shaw follows the lives of two lovers caught in the throes of the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s. We sat down to learn more about her inspiration for this book, the first of a trilogy.
Swedenborg Foundation: This novel (and the entire trilogy) is set during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Why did you pick that particular time period? Could you say a little bit about the significance of the war from a Mexican perspective?
Sylvia Montgomery Shaw: I’ve been fascinated by the revolution since I was a child growing up in Mexico. My grandmother used to tell us the most stirring stories about her ill-fated father and her family’s experiences during that crucial 1910–1920 period. She was a little girl when her father, Governor Zepeda, was assassinated on the dictator’s orders. She had vivid memories of her young British mother and grandmother defending her and her sisters from Zapatista troops and starvation during the 1915 famine that swept through the country. I loved the stories of these women who struggled with all this as well as the language and the culture, and still were able to call Mexico home. So that’s the personal side of my interest in the era and the impetus behind my doctoral studies that included Mexican historiography.
From a Mexican perspective, the revolution marked a crucial turning point in our history. Most Mexicans think of the la Revolución with a capital “R.” More than liberating the nation from a dictator who was both benevolent and autocratic, the struggle created the possibility of a democracy that has been slowly developing ever since. The change was not instantaneous. For some seventy years after the revolution, dictatorship was simply replaced with a one-party system. President Fox’s surprise election in the year 2000 marked a positive change in that regard since he was not a member of the PRI—the revolutionary party. In any case, for better or for worse, the Mexican Revolution, which is estimated to have claimed more than a million lives, forced change—social, economic, and political—when change was needed.
SF: You grew up in Mexico. Are the places that you’re writing about places that you remember as a child? How did that experience affect the way you wrote this book?
SMS: I was born in Mexico, so Spanish is my native language. My mother is Mexican, my father American. So my brother Rob, my sister Louise, and I grew up fully bilingual. We moved quite often in the early years and finally settled in Wayne, Pennsylvania, my dad’s hometown, when I was thirteen. Happily, we continued to spend every summer—all three glorious months of it—in my grandparents’ homes in Mexico City and in the town of Cuernavaca. Both of these places figure prominently in my novels. One of the challenges was to figure out what these places were like some fifty years before I was born and to convey that.
SF: The book includes a lot of very specific details about the time period—how people dressed, what they ate, and of course information on the war itself. How did you approach that historical research?
SMS: I started out by listening carefully to the personal accounts of my grandparents and people of their generation. My grandfather, for example, was a soldier in the revolutionary army from the tender age of eleven. He even had a short stint in the counter-revolutionary army of General Huerta back in 1914 when the Americans invaded Veracruz. In a rush of national fervor, he, like so many of the men who hated the Huerta dictatorship, set aside their personal feelings and signed up as recruits to fight off the invaders from the north. So I had my grandfather’s firsthand accounts as well as his memoirs, Páginas Sueltas. I learned just how deeply the family had been involved in the politics of the day. Grandfather’s uncle, the revolutionist José Pino Suarez, was Mexico’s last vice president and was assassinated in 1913. My grandmother’s father was a governor in Huerta’s anti-revolutionary administration. So I had inside information on both sides of the conflict, if we reduce the complexity of the revolution with its many leaders to revolutionary and counterrevolutionary politics.
For years I read historical accounts, memoirs, and newspaper articles long buried in the archives of the Hemeroteca Nacional of Mexico City. I also did a lot of the research in the extensive library collections of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Texas at Austin. A good portion of my doctoral dissertation in English drew from these studies since I was exploring the conjunction of historiography and literary nonfiction. Long before doing these studies I knew that I wanted to write a novel about the revolution. What I didn’t know then was that it would evolve into a trilogy.
SF: Is there a spiritual dimension to the book, and if so, how does Swedenborg come into it?
SMS: Not immediately. The novel opens with a murder. Readers don’t see it happen; they’re simply told that it will. My original intention was to tell a good mystery yarn set in an exciting historical period that few English-language readers know much about. Yet the truth is, as I worked on it, I became a lot less concerned with solving the mystery of who killed General Nyman and more concerned with deeper spiritual issues. At the same time that I was writing the first draft, I was reading the NCE edition of Divine Providence. I read it twice all the way through, taking copious notes on index cards that were spiral-bound. After filling six such booklets of a hundred cards each, I began to realize that I was really exploring the nature of freedom—natural and spiritual—and the process of regeneration. (I would hasten to add to readers: don’t worry. The murder mystery IS finally resolved in book 2).
Book 2 is implicitly Swedenborgian, not explicitly. I mention that the central female protagonist is “Swedenborgian,” something that mystifies Catholic Mexicans, and I quote a short passage from Swedenborg once, placing it alongside a few lines from the German poet Rilke. I let the novel demonstrate New Church principles implicitly rather than explicitly. Chief among these is the idea that spiritual regeneration does not happen in a single instant of divine grace, but that it is a process—a recursive one at that. I had in mind that we must first be reformed before we can be regenerated. My protagonist is not a regenerated individual by the end of book 1, but he is on his way.
SF: How long have you been working on the book? Has it undergone many changes from your first conception of it?
SMS: In one sense, I’ve been writing the book for the past forty years. I’ve written what I call four apprentice novels—novels that were not ready for publication but that were training me for the real thing. In terms of this particular work, I wrote most of the trilogy in two years. When I left Boston University, where I had been teaching, I gave myself the gift of time to immerse in reading DP and materials for the book, and in writing every day for an average of eight to ten hours. It was exhilarating! The characters took on a life of their own and took over the novel. This is no cliché. They guided me as the novel continued to morph. By the time I neared writing the end of Paradise Misplaced, I suddenly knew where I had been going all along with this book and rewrote the beginning.
SF: Who is your favorite character in the book, and why?
SMS: I love the protagonist, Benjamín Nyman. He’s spoiled like so many wealthy young men that I’ve known in Mexico and full of himself. He’s a skeptic and can’t resist being irreligious. But he has the beautiful sensibility of a poet. I have watched his struggles and his blunders with a tender eye. I’m also very fond of his mother in book 1 of the trilogy. She errs, but she loves deeply. In book 2 she becomes a far more complex character and much more difficult to love.
SF: Could you give our readers a hint about what’s coming up in the next two books of the trilogy?
SMS: If you think of Paradise Misplaced as Benjamín Nyman’s story, Flight of the Trogon is more Isabel’s story, though Ben still figures prominently in it. It’s more openly Swedenborgian than book 1, since the protagonist, a recent graduate of a girl’s school in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, comes to think of herself in increasingly New Church terms. The second book goes back to a crucial scene from book 1 and describes it from Isabel’s perspective—Isabel, the American girl who has married into a very wealthy family; Isabel, who has returned to her hometown in Mexico just when the revolution is about to erupt. Isabel, who mysteriously becomes the sole heir to a great fortune. The will triggers a series of catastrophes. As the second wave of revolution takes on a more sinister quality, Manuela Nyman, the matriarch of the family, also morphs. Taking it upon herself to avenge Benjamín, she imprisons and torments the young heiress—and that’s when Isabel grows to think of will in a Swedenborgian sense, as something far more vital than a legal document. What follows is more than a battle of wills; it’s a headlong plunge into the inner landscapes people create.
Book 3, Planting Eden, follows the Nyman-Vizcarra family to Zacatecas, a silver-mining city deep in the Mexican sierras. A lot of the action focuses on Eva Comardo, Benjamín’s sister, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a Spanish count. Eva falls in love with a man who is determined to stay in Zacatecas despite the distant but distinct rumblings of war. She persuades her husband to postpone their return to Europe and begins a secret campaign to free herself from her marriage. She enlists the help of her brother, who is a Roman Catholic priest. He, in turn, sets out for Zacatecas to save her from the perilous path of adultery, divorce, and possible excommunication. What neither he nor Eva nor any of the citizens can know is that the revolution is rolling inexorably toward them, isolated though they are. Nor do the brother and sister realize that one of their own siblings is riding with the revolutionary horde that will soon descend on them. Zacatecas is about to become the bloodiest battle of the revolution and the site of deep internal battles.
Sylvia Montgomery Shaw
978-0-87785-341-1 / paperback / 304 pages / $15.95