So many elements go into the story behind the inspiration of any of my novels it’s like a recipe, one with multiple ingredients. In The Shadow of War, my first full length historical romance which debuted in 2012, isn’t any different. To understand how I conceived the idea, first you’d need to climb through the branches of my tangled family tree.
The two sides of my family are different generations. On my dad’s side, my grandfather served in World War I and my uncles served in World War II. In my mom’s family, my grandpa served in the Philippines during the Second World War and so did all of my grandmother’s cousins including Neal, who died in battle. So I grew up on stories.
Then I moved to the other end of the state and spent my first two years of college at Crowder College, a community college housed in old Army buildings on the site of Camp Crowder. It’s better known to people around the world by its’ old nickname thanks to Mort Walker who was stationed there during WWII, Camp Swampy. Walker drew the Beetle Bailey comic strip.
As a student, I was fascinated by the past merging into the present and wrote a series of articles for the campus paper about Camp Crowder. And I decided one day I’d write a novel about those years. In The Shadow of War is the novel.
It contains little bits from those stories, historical facts from both the war and the local Army camp and of course a lot of imagination.
Here's the prologue and first chapter from In The Shadow of War:
In the Shadow of War
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Dainty African violets bloomed in the window sill despite the weather outside. Snow fell at a fast, furious rate blanketing everything with white. On any other Sunday afternoon Bette might’ve dozed, settled into her favorite corner of the couch, listening to some old black and white classic movie, but today she’d willed herself to stay alert. Across the room, one of her great-granddaughters, April or Allie or something with an A, waited with pen poised to paper. She awaited the answer, but Bette just couldn’t quite recall the question.
“Tell me again, honey, what you need to know for school,” she said.
Ariel. She remembered now they’d named the kid for a mermaid in some Disney film.
The girl sighed. “We’re studying World War II in history and we’re supposed to interview an elderly person about what they remember. Do you remember World War II?”
“Of course, I do,” Bette replied, a little stung by the precocious question from a girl who might be sixteen. Maybe she couldn’t always remember what she ate for breakfast or the name of the building’s maintenance man, but she recalled the past with amazing clarity. “What about it, exactly, do you want to know?”
“Like, I don’t know,” Ariel said with a flip of her abundant hair. “My history teacher just said to ask. I’ve got to write a paper about it so just tell me something you remember about it. Did you know any soldiers or anything?”
“I did. There was an Army training camp in the small town where I’m from in Missouri,” Bette said, her mind drifting back across the country and over the years. “Your grandpa, no, I guess it’d be your great-grandpa, served in the Army and it’s where we met.”
“Cool,” Ariel said. “So tell me about him.”
Bette focused on the old sepia photograph of her husband on the wall above the television, the one where he wore his full dress uniform. Beside it, the photo of her sitting in front of him just days after their wartime wedding reminded her of those days. Memories rushed into her mind, heady and full-bodied like fine wine. “Okay, but Ariel, I have to start at the beginning.”
“When?” the teen asked as she picked at a broken fingernail. “Don’t go all the way back to the dark ages, please.”
For a moment Bette debated on whether she should slap the girl or not, but remembered most people frowned on such things today. “It all started the day America got into the war, Ariel, on December seven, nineteen and forty-one, a day that will live in infamy.”
“Pearl Harbor,” Ariel said, with sudden interest. “Yeah, I remember that from class.”
“Good,” Bette said. “Now hush and I’ll tell you about living it.”
Sunday December 7, 1941
In a somnolent state somewhere between sleep and awareness, Bette burrowed deeper beneath the covers, unwilling to crawl out of bed. Most mornings the aroma of coffee and hickory cured bacon from the farm lured her to rise, but on Sunday she couldn’t eat until after Mass so she lacked a good reason to get up. If she didn’t roll out soon, though, Aunt Virgie would call her and Bette couldn’t stand to hear her name stretched out into three syllables in a tone loud enough anyone downtown could hear. She tossed back the covers and shivered with the cold. After padding on bare feet to the bathroom and back, Bette pulled on her best slip and buttoned into her good Sunday woolen navy blue dress. Her fingers fumbled on the twenty buttons but she managed to fasten each one. Then she worked stockings on, pulled them up, and thrust her feet into her best shoes.
Bette combed her shoulder length hair and parted it on the left side. Her natural curl provided body and she twirled a few strands around the comb to make ringlets. Although Aunt Virgie didn’t care for cosmetics she dusted her face with Angel Face powder and painted her mouth with cherry red lipstick. She dabbed a little perfume on her wrists and behind her ears. Bette stuck out her tongue at the wavering reflection in the old bureau mirror and took her worn cloth coat out of the closet. As she picked up her pocketbook, a hand-me-down from her aunt, Robbie’s voice echoed through the house, his deeper tones mingling with her aunt’s shriller note.
Emerging into the dining room and through the open doorway, Bette saw her childhood playmate seated on the divan. He rose as she entered the front room to greet her.
“Good morning, glory.”
His stale joke chafed this early without coffee but she forced a smile. “Hi, Robbie. Is it cold outside?”
“You bet,” he said. “It snowed just a little. I thought I’d better come by to sweep off Miss Virgie’s front steps and see if you wanted me to walk you over to your church.”
“You’re awful sweet,” Aunt Virgie said as she stepped out of her bedroom, wearing her black broadcloth skirt suit as outdated as the cloche hat sitting on her gray curls. “Thanks, Robbie. Why don’t you come to Sunday dinner after you get out of your services?”
“I’d like to, Miss Virgie so thanks,” Robbie answered, his goofy grin lighting up the dim room. “You sure look pretty, Bette.”
“Do I?” she said, although she knew the navy blue dress sharpened her sapphire eyes and fit like a glove. “Thanks.”
“We need to leave now or we’ll be late,” Aunt Virgie fussed. “Honey, put your coat on and get your hat.”
Bette shook out her coat and Robbie, ever the gentleman, took it so she could slip her arms into the sleeves. She put on her own little flat tilt hat, a straw number better suited for summer but her school teacher’s salary didn’t extend to many haute couture purchases. “I’m ready.”
In what had become the usual Sunday routine since she moved to town last summer to begin her first year teaching at the local high school, Robbie took her aunt’s arm and escorted her down the narrow, steep stairs from the porch to the sidewalk. The house perched midway up Jefferson Street on one of Neosho’s many hills so leaving meant going either up or down hill. St. Canera’s, the town’s only Catholic parish, crowned another hill less than two blocks away, so Robbie led her aunt to the corner before turning east. Bette followed, mindful of her footing in the snow covering the sidewalk, but it seemed dry, not slick so she didn’t have any trouble at all.
Robbie left them at the door of the church located in an old frame building always reminiscent of a schoolhouse and headed downtown to the First Baptist Church where he worshipped, although he’d be very early. Bette watched him go with his shoulders squared against the winter wind blowing hard enough to rattle the bare branches. She’d known him all her life and they’d gone to Hilldale School together. His family’s farm bordered theirs and since she moved to Neosho, he came by Aunt Virgie’s often.
“That young man thinks the world of you,” her aunt said, voice soft as they entered the sanctuary where they dipped their fingers into the baptismal font then made the Sign of the Cross.
“I know,” Bette said.
They slipped into a pew on the left and knelt to pray, silent now like everyone else. As Mass began, she made all the right responses but her mind drifted as she wondered what she should do about Robbie.
He made it plain he admired her and wanted to be more than friends. Although she liked him and they’d grown up together, climbing trees, running through the woods, even working side by side in the fields, Bette felt nothing more than friendship. Robbie’d always been almost like another brother to her, someone who teased and watched over her like a guardian angel. He’d defended her with his fists in grade school and even after they came into town to attend the high school where she now taught English. Bette believed in true love, but she thought, and her college friends agreed, there should be some kind of sparkle around any man who attracted you. He should take your breath away or make you giggle or heat you up with a kind of fever, but she’d never felt such emotion around Robbie. She didn’t think she ever would, but she cared enough about him not to want to hurt his feelings. Bette had given Robbie every chance to impress or charm her since she moved in with Aunt Virgie during the summer, but so far, she had nothing but friendship to offer him.
After Mass, they spent a few minutes talking with other folks. Bette didn’t fit in with the teenage girls any longer. But since she remained single and had a career, she felt out of place with the young wives, too. So she stuck with her aunt and listened to what people had on their minds. Most of them thought hard times were almost over but the war across the water in Europe worried almost everyone. Some of the ladies would rather talk about what kind of candy they’d make for the upcoming holiday bazaar, though, or what they might cook for Christmas dinner.
“I haven’t seen your mama and daddy for ages,” Miss Stafford, a spinster older than Aunt Virgie, said. “I know they wish they could come to church more often.”
“Oh, they do,” Bette said.
The farm lay between Shoal Creek and the rugged hills giving way to prairie in the rich bottomland, but it remained remote enough from Neosho so coming to Mass each week proved difficult. Sometimes if the creek flooded or the road washed out or the old truck used for family transportation broke down it became impossible. Although raised Catholic, she’d become more devout in her college years because she could go to church weekly and since she now lived in town, she still did.
“I hear they’ve just about finished building the Army camp south of town,” another of the older ladies said.
“I think it means we’ll be in the war sooner than you think,” Miss Stafford added. “You know my brother’s family had to move because the Army took their land. It just doesn’t seem American, they could take the farm he bought years ago and worked so hard to make something out, then him move, but they did.”
All the talk of war made Bette nervous. Her dad served in the World War and although he talked little about it, what he said made her believe war must be truly terrible. At school most of the teachers talked about it but she refused. Let the war stay in Europe where it belonged.
As soon as they returned home, Aunt Virgie changed into one of her faded print housedresses and began cooking. Bette joined her in the kitchen, but she put an apron over her dress, knowing Robbie would show up when the Baptists got out. She might not be in love with him, but vanity dictated she look her best anyway.
“What are you fixing?” she asked her aunt.
“I thought I’d roast the big chicken I bought yesterday,” Virgie said. “Dumplings would go nice with it on such a cold day. Maybe you can make a cake.”
“Sure,” Bette said.
By the time Robbie arrived, the rich yellow cake frosted with thick chocolate icing was ready and the snow began falling again heavy enough to make visibility difficult. Her aunt’s chicken and dumplings were delicious and the cake tasted scrumptious. After Bette did the dishes, her Sunday chore performed to give Aunt Virgie a break, the three gathered in the living room where Robbie turned on the radio. They sat in quiet contemplation as the snow sifted down outside and listened to beautiful music including Bette’s current favorites, Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Sometimes they talked, but more often they allowed the music to trickle through their consciousness.
Aunt Virgie dozed and Bette thought Robbie did, too. Her own sleepiness blanketed her with a delicious and lazy feeling she liked. She indulged in the freedom of doing nothing, a rare event since she began teaching school. When she wasn’t preparing lesson plans or grading papers, Bette usually knitted or embroidered. Leisure time meant reading a novel instead of a textbook, but for now she gloried in sloth.
When the news broadcaster’s voice interrupted the stream of lovely music, it jolted Bette out of her complacent comfort. As she struggled to understand the announcement the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, she heard the newsman say it meant war. Robbie roused and so did Aunt Virgie.
“What’s happened?” her aunt asked, querulous and cross.
“Hush,” Bette said. “The Japanese have attacked us in Hawaii and the Philippines. I think it means we’re going to war.”
In somber silence, they sat and heard the news repeated over and over throughout the surreal broadcast. The telephone began to ring as the word spread. Outside, despite the freezing temperature and snow, Bette saw neighbors coming out onto the porches. People gathered on the sidewalks in tight knots as they talked about the attacks and what would come next. Her stomach knotted with apprehension as Bette struggled to digest what happened. Through her shock and angst, she realized life as she knew it just ended and something different was emerging. Nothing, she thought, would ever be the same again.
“I’m going,” Robbie announced, his dark eyes earnest in his pale face. “I’m enlisting tomorrow. I bet President Roosevelt won’t declare war ‘til tomorrow because it’s Sunday, but I’m going to fight Japs.”
His voice rose as he spoke to combine with her aunt’s shouted phone conversation and the radio broadcast. Bette heard church bells ring somewhere not too far away and she wanted to put her hands over her ears to stop it all.
“Don’t, Robbie!” She vented her confusion and fear on her buddy.
He crossed the room to stand before her then he jerked her to her feet so they faced each other. “I’m going away to the war, Bette.”
Robbie seized her in his arms and kissed her hard. He’d kissed her once or twice, but those were chaste little pecks. His lips were rough against her unwilling mouth and his heat seared her cold flesh. He failed to evoke the wild mysterious reaction she’d felt in college more than once, but Bette lacked immunity to wild passion. She responded with instinct, her mouth giving back what he offered. Caught up in the moment, Bette’s arms circled his neck and they kissed even after her aunt hung up the phone to stare at them in stunned shock.
When he released her, Bette couldn’t find anything to say but he told her, “I’m heading downtown to see what the other men are saying. I’ll see you later, sweetheart.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Aunt Virgie said, eyes as round as a pair of iron skillets.
Bette didn’t know what her aunt would do or what she thought, but the same amazement bent her knees to sit in the easy chair. She couldn’t decide what stunned her most – war or the kiss, but both had Bette spinning in circles like an out of control top. Neither woman spoke as the phone shrilled again.
When Virgie finished the call, she told Bette,
“You’d better go make some coffee. I bet we’ve got company coming.”
Within a short time the house swelled with people. Many neighbors, friends, and a few family members arrived looking shell shocked. Bette’s older brother Clarence came in from the farm, face drawn and haggard.
“Mama’s in a state over this,” he said as he drew her off into a corner. “And Daddy’s getting drunk. Maybe you should come home until this war thing runs its course. It’ll be safer on the farm and Mama’s worried those Japanese’ll bomb here next.”
His concern touched her, but she could smell the pungent moonshine on his breath, too.
“They’d have to cross the Pacific Ocean and half the country to do it,” she said, voice tarter than she intended. “It’s not likely and I have a job. I signed a contract with the school board. If I break it, I’ll never get hired again.”
“Think about it anyway,” he said.
“I will if you’ll come have a cup of coffee,” Bette told him.
When it got dark people started heading home and she gathered up the dirty cups and cake plates and started washing up. Robbie emptied overflowing ash trays and straightened up the front room. He’d returned hours earlier and joined in the conversation echoing through the house. By the time she wiped down the sink and hung the dish towel to dry, Bette had a pounding headache.
Aunt Virgie paused in the kitchen door, her mussed hair as frazzled as Bette felt. “I’m going to bed, Bette. Sleep well if you can.”
She disappeared into her bedroom at the front of the house and shut the door with a soft but distinct snick. Robbie moved toward Bette, but she lifted one hand to stop him.
“I need to go to bed, too,” she said. “My head’s splitting and I’ve got to work tomorrow. So do you.”
“They’ll have to do without me down at the hospital,” Robbie said. He’d worked there as a custodian for the past few years, proud of his job keeping the new facility sparkling clean. “I’ll be enlisting tomorrow. Go on to bed and feel better. My girl needs her beauty sleep.”
My girl. Two words she’d adored coming from almost anyone else. Bette stared at him and said nothing. One kiss didn’t make her Robbie’s girl, but she didn’t feel like explaining it now. She loved him the way she once loved her ragged old teddy bear with a strong affection and she wouldn’t hurt him for the world. His talk of going away to war frightened her into silence.
“Come see me tomorrow,” she told him, too tired to argue.
If Bette thought Sunday went awry, Monday turned out even crazier. With not enough sleep and far too much coffee, she faced her students and found them all as perturbed as she. All but three of the senior boys were absent and she knew without doubt they’d gone down to the local recruiting office. Half the junior boys were also gone. All of the young men who came to school had aged overnight, somehow grown from boys into men. Some of the girls still wept, blotting their eyes with handkerchiefs and for once their giggles were gone. They acted more mature, too.
During first period, Bette tried to continue the lesson she’d begun the week before, a unit on early American poets, but the kids weren’t listening. She yielded to their need to talk about the coming war and for the rest of the day each class confided their fears and hopes. None of the other teachers fared any better and during lunch room duty Bette listened to the others saying the same things as her students.
Before the day ended, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan and by the time she walked home from the high school, skirting the downtown to reach Jefferson Street, Bette longed for nothing but a warm bath and bed. Crowds filled the sidewalks and when she bought a newspaper every news item was somehow tied to the coming war. Cold winds knifed through her thin coat as she marched up the hill to her aunt’s house. She half expected to find Robbie, but instead most of her aunt’s friends camped in the front room listening to the radio.
The widows lingered, but the wives with families headed home so they could prepare supper. Bette made polite conversation and ended up fixing a simple supper they shared with the other ladies. Robbie arrived just as they finished, but she’d kept back a pork chop and some mashed potatoes for him so he ate while she washed the rest of the dishes.
“I did it,” he said when they were alone. “I enlisted.”
Bette paused, hands deep in dishwater and sighed. “Which branch of the service?”
“Navy,” Robbie said. “My dad and one of my uncles were Navy men.”
She nodded as she processed the information. “When do you go?”
“I don’t know yet,” he replied. “But as soon as they give me the word, I’m out of here.”
Her response came as automatic as amen at the end of a prayer. “I’ll miss you, Robbie.”
“Yeah?” His voice sounded closer and before she could turn around, he put an arm around her waist. “That’s good. I’d want my girl to miss me. You can write to me every day and when I come home, we’ll get married. What do you say?”
Bette’s heart screamed a silent no as a tear slipped out of one eye to slide down her cheek. She’d meant what she said and she’d miss him but not the way a girl back home misses her sailor gone to the sea. She’d miss her buddy, the old friend she’d climbed trees and skinned knees with back in the day. If she’d known one kiss yesterday would mark her as his girl, she’d have pushed him away with speed. Now, though, she didn’t want to break his heart so she said, after a long silence, “I’ll write you, Robbie, and you can write to me. We’ll talk about the rest when the war is over, okay?”
He hugged her from behind, familiar but uncomfortable now. “Aw, you’re just scared, honey, but it’s okay. We’ll talk about it whenever you want.”
Robbie didn’t hear her lack of enthusiasm and when he asked to kiss her goodnight, she agreed but after he left she ran a tub full of hot water, soaked in it with some scented bath salts, and cried.
Bette hated the war already and it’d just begun.
By the end of the week, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and the new war had an official name – World War II – and Roosevelt ordered the draft to begin. All men between eighteen and sixty-five had to register. Then talk of rationing began.
Bette moved through her days like a walking shadow, feeling insubstantial and without foundation. If she could, she’d move back the clock so this war would never have happened, but she couldn’t.
She just had to live with reality.
Doing so turned out to be harder than she ever dreamed it might be.
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