Sarah Shoemaker of Northport, Michigan, author of the critically acclaimed Mr. Rochester, has a new novel coming out this fall. Children of the Catastrophe, set in the city of Smyrna in the early 20th century, is, as the author herself describes it, a story of family, love and loss, crisis and survival. The book’s release date is September 6, the day after Labor Day, and Shoemaker will be at the Leelanau Township Library that evening to meet and greet the public. Dog Ears Books will be on hand, as well, to sell books to those wishing to purchase, which the author will be happy to sign.
In her new work of historical fiction, Shoemaker goes behind the bare facts to imagine two families over the course of years leading up to a tragic real event in history. Early in the novel a marriage is arranged within Smyrna’s Greek community. The bride is one of four sisters, the groom an only child. Parents of the two (especially the mothers) have traditional concerns about qualities they wish to see in a partner for their respective children, but happily for the bride and groom in this case, they are attracted to one another from the start, and soon a new generation of Greeks is growing up in a happy home in Smyrna, little suspecting that their world is about to be utterly destroyed.
There are, Shoemaker said in a recent interview, 27 million refugees in the world today, and every one of those people represents “a family, a community, a way of life that is forever lost to them.” In large world events – every catastrophe, especially – it is easy to lose sight of particular individuals and families. Yet every war, every famine, every horrendous headline event changes the world forever for people who were up until then, most of them, living very ordinary lives.
What must it be like to have almost everything and then suddenly to lose it all? How does this affect families, and what differences are there in the responses of different family members? Different generations? These are questions Shoemaker sought answers for in her novel.
Shoemaker has lived in Greece and also for two years in Izmir, Turkey, the present seaport city on the former site of Smyrna. She knew the history and heard the personal story of one survivor whose entire family was lost in the Great Fire (1922), also known to Greeks as the Catastrophe. So, all in all, she felt this was a story she could write.
“Every time I see pictures from Ukraine,” Shoemaker said to her interviewer, “our most recent world events that impact people’s lives – seriously -- I see those people now, having written this book, differently, because I see them as individuals who’ve had lives.” She observes that it’s easy to lose sight of individual lives when we see masses of refugees in events not happening to us. But – “This could be us sometime. Or this could be somebody I care about sometime.” What tragic events do to real people’s real lives is what Shoemaker wants readers to take away from her novel. And in this aim, she succeeds brilliantly.
As a reader, one comes to live inside the story, to live inside houses inhabited by people one comes to know. One hundred years later in time and far distant in space, while reading we inhabit the world of early 20th-century Greek Smyrna and feel connected to the characters’ hopes and dreams, sympathetic to their problems, concerned for their lives. In the end, we realize that their tragedy is our tragedy, in that it is a human tragedy, and we are all human beings, despite our differences.
-- Can you tell I am excited about this book? It is going to be an excellent choice for book clubs, too!
Tuesday, September 6, 7:30 p.m., Leelanau Township Library, Northport, MI: Sarah Shoemaker and Children of the Catastrophe
P.S. You can hear the complete interview with Sarah Shoemaker on the Library Love Fest podcast from Harper Collins, publisher of Children of the Catastrophe. Sarah Nelson, vice president and executive editor of Harper Collins, introduces and interviews Sarah Shoemaker in the podcast.