The North Carolina author’s latest novel sprung from a bit of her state’s history dating to when the people of Hickory built a polio hospital in just 54 hours.
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Diane Chamberlain‘s past books have dealt with sisters living under secret identities, end of life issues and state-mandated sterilization. Now, with The Stolen Marriage, she brings to life a time in our country’s history when polio epidemics ravaged people of all ages. She got inspiration from the “Miracle of Hickory,” a time in 1944 when the small North Carolina town of Hickory built, outfitted and staffed a polio hospital in just 54 hours.
Chamberlain introduces us to 23-year-old Tess DeMello, who is forced to abruptly end her engagement to the love of her life. Instead, she marries Henry Kraft, a mysterious stranger, and moves in with him, his mother and sister in Hickory. Henry is a secretive man who often stays out all night and hides money from Tess. She quickly realizes that she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage.
When a sudden polio epidemic strikes the town, people band together to build a polio hospital. Having completed her nursing degree, Tess ignores Henry’s wishes and begins to work at the hospital. At home, Henry’s actions grow more curious by the day. The people of Hickory love and respect Henry, but view Tess as an outsider. She wonders: what is it everyone knows about Henry that she does not? And is there a way out for her?
The Stolen Marriage tugs at readers’ heartstrings for Tess and eventually for all of Chamberlain’s characters as she delves deeper into their actions and motivations. As always, she delivers on family secrets, drama and a bit of mystery.
EZB: How did you learn about the story of Hickory’s polio hospital and why did you think it was great material for a novel?
DC: I believe I read about the “Miracle of Hickory” in a number of sources when I first moved to North Carolina 12 years ago. I was delving into the history of the state, trying to educate myself to my new home and was fascinated by the idea of a community pulling together to such a great degree. I tucked the idea away for a long time. When I was ready to write this book, my 25th, the idea nagged at me and I knew it was time to create a story around the building of the hospital.
EZB: You’re known for your “families of secrets,” but the ones in this novel take that idea to a new level. How did Tess and Henry develop and evolve for you?
DC: Tess came first in my mind. It may seem crazy to have a young Italian Catholic woman from Baltimore tell the story of a small Southern town, but that was exactly what I wanted my narrator to be: a fish out of water, and Tess certainly fits the bill. I grew up a devout Catholic and (half) Italian in New Jersey, so her character was easy for me to relate to. I knew I wanted Henry to be wealthy, powerful and beloved by the people of Hickory. I started from there and simply began writing about him to see how he would evolve.
EZB: This may be a spoiler question, but there seems to be a fine line between consent and rape when it comes to Tess and Henry’s first night together. Did you want the reader to feel a certain way about that or is it mainly Tess’s Catholic guilt talking?
DC: This was one of the topics I found most difficult to write about since my setting was 1944, but my readers would have the mindset and values of 2017. It is not much of a spoiler to say that there’s a fine line between consent and rape in that scene. But I don’t think it’s just Tess’s Catholic guilt talking: I think it’s 1944 talking. I truly doubt anyone in that era—not only Tess or Henry—would view what happened as rape. Today, though, our collective consciousness has been raised to understand that a situation like that would indeed constitute rape. It’s probably the most touchy element in the entire book.
EZB: Your title The Stolen Marriage is quite provocative. Can you expound on it without giving too much away?
DC: I don’t think I can say much about it without giving too much away! I will say, though, that the title works on several different levels, as the reader will eventually discover.
EZB: Reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to be mostly positive. In fact, lots of readers say they enjoyed the last third of the book most and didn’t want it to end. In your mind, do Tess and Henry meet again?
DC: I like to think that they do, and under much improved circumstances.
EZB: Race relations and the two sides of Hickory are a big part of this book. Tess goes to Ridgeview, the black part of town, to meet with Reverend Sam and try to make a connection with someone, anyone. Was this part of the book based on a personal experience you had?
DC: Actually, it was. I’m not much of a believer in the “spirit world,” but many years ago I visited a medium with the intention of “debunking” him. A few friends had seen him and the stories they told me struck me as impossible, so I wanted to figure out how he did it. Instead, he “contacted” my grandmother and mother by name—something I’ve never been able to explain. I knew he would someday influence a character in one of my books, and I was happy when Reverend Sam showed up in this story.
EZB: Any other inspirations or things you want readers to know about this novel?
DC: As I speak to audiences about The Stolen Marriage, I’m most struck by how little younger people know about the devastating polio epidemics that ravaged the United States before the vaccines were invented, and how many older people knew someone who had the disease—or even suffered from it themselves. It’s a topic that seems to resonate for all ages for different reasons. I’m so glad I decided to write about it to bring it back into the light.