Siri Mitchell is the author of nearly a dozen novels, among them the critically acclaimed Christy Award finalists CHATEAU OF ECHOES and THE CUBICLE NEXT DOOR. A graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in business, she has worked in many different levels of government. As military spouse, she has lived in places as varied as Tokyo and Paris. Siri currently lives in the DC-metro area. Visit www.sirimitchell.com
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Having mastered the art of the historical novel, award-winning author Siri Mitchell offers her ninth work of fiction, A HEART MOST WORTHY. The book’s three main characters must battle prejudice --- and seek true love --- while helping their Italian family adapt and merge into the great American melting pot of cultures. In this interview, Mitchell discusses the Italian immigrant experience during The Great Emigration and how this information is still relevant in today’s world. She also imparts facts about turn-of-the-century anarchists and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic, as well as her belief in leaving the mistakes of the past behind us.
Question: Can you provide a brief description of your latest release?
Siri Mitchell: A HEART MOST WORTHY is a story set in 1918 among a group of Italian immigrants. The best elements of ROMEO AND JULIET, SNOW WHITE, and THE BOY NEXT DOOR collide in the teeming streets of Boston’s colorful North End. Each day Julietta, Annamaria, and Luciana enter the world of the upper class, working on gowns for the elite of society. The three beauties each long to break free of their obligations and embrace the American dream --- and their chance for love. Their destinies intertwined, each harboring a secret from their families and each other, they long to be found worthy of the love they seek.
Q: This book submerses the reader in the Italian immigrant experience. What did those immigrants contribute to American culture?
SM: What didn’t they contribute --- from food to language to culture? Who doesn’t like pasta? Who has never ordered a pizza or said ‘ciao’ or hummed a tune of Frank Sinatra’s? The ice cream cone, the concept of the shopping mall, and the Lincoln Memorial owe their creation to Italian Americans. The name of our country was taken from an Italian, Amerigo Vespucci. On a broader scale, Italian vegetables like zucchini and broccoli were all but unknown in America before the Great Emigration began in 1880. It’s unfortunate that quite often Americans equate Italian culture with the mafia, but that percentage of immigrants was very slight.
Q: I’ve never heard of The Great Emigration before. What was that?
SM: The Great Italian Emigration to America began in 1880 and ended in 1921. Historians estimate that 4.2 million people left Italy to settle in the United States. Entire Italian towns were left emptied.
Though the vast majority of Italians came in peace with no thought but to settle and begin their lives anew, Americans, alarmed at their vast numbers and horrified at their odd customs, reacted with xenophobia and fear. The only other race more frequently lynched during the time period were African Americans. Along with the peaceful immigrants, however, came anarchists. Long before the Twin Towers in New York City were ever built, early 20th century anarchists had determined that their most powerful weapon was the bomb, their most expendable asset, themselves. Like modern suicide bombers, a surprising number of anarchists blew themselves up in the process of dispatching their brand of violence. Anarchists terrified America in the early decades of the last century, mailing package bombs, distributing pamphlets with dire warnings, and lacing food with poison. “Italian” swiftly became synonymous with Anarchist. The vast majority of honest, peaceful immigrants soon became viewed as radical zealots.
To deal with the immigrant problem, Congress voted, in 1921, to set permanent quotas on immigration from certain undesirable countries. On the foundation provided by this law, the barriers to Jewish immigration during World War II were erected. With the bill’s passing, The Great Italian Emigration came to an end.
Q: How do you think such a period in history is relevant to today?
SM: It’s relevant because we still have an immigrant problem in America. Every new immigrant population that comes to our country faces the same prejudices and xenophobia that the Italians did back then. And on a broader scale, women still have trouble believing it’s okay to be themselves, to want what they want, and be who they are. As long as people fear those who look or act differently, as long as we convince ourselves that “good” or “nice” people have to look or sound a certain way, then I believe that we are doomed to repeat history’s mistakes. If, however, we can remember that the God who created the desert also created the rain forest, if we recall that He created the smallest of frogs and the largest of elephants, if we can revel in our differences instead of trying to make everything conform to our own shape and size, I think we can begin to leave the mistakes of the past behind.
Q: The year in which your novel is set was the year of the Spanish Influenza Epidemic. Why did it kill so many people?
SM: That’s the million-dollar question! The Spanish influenza killed ten times as many Americans as World War I. It did not originate in Spain and it may not even have been influenza, but it was a pandemic, the likes of which had never been witnessed before. It first appeared in the spring of 1918.
Hitching a ride on the troop transports that circulated between America and Europe, it resurfaced in the fall, seeming to appear everywhere at once. After its third wave in the spring of 1919, it retreated from whence it had come, never to be seen again. Scientists have still not been able to identify its particular strain.
The Spanish influenza killed an estimated 20-50 million people worldwide and infected an incredible 500 million. It ambushed its victims, often felling them in the course of hours. It shredded the lungs, quite literally drowning people to death. It hit those living in close, cramped conditions, like the immigrants in the North End of Boston, especially hard. When it didn’t kill people, it left them so drained of energy that some families died simply because they had no access to food and water and none of them had the strength or consciousness to go get any. After having researched this book, I’m a big believer in the flu vaccine!
© Copyright 2011, Siri Mitchell. All rights reserved
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Siri Mitchell’s most recent novel, SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY, is an historical romance set during the Gilded Age in New York City, about a young debutante torn between her social obligations and the need to follow her heart. In this interview, Mitchell discusses the ways in which life during the 1890s mirrors many of our attitudes and practices today, and describes what baffled her the most about typical 19th-century behavior. She also shares what contemporary people can learn from young society women at the turn of the century and elaborates on the message she hopes readers will take away from the book.
Question: This book takes place over 100 years ago in late-Victorian America. What is the relevance for today’s reader?
Siri Mitchell: The more I learned about late-Victorian culture, the more their problems seemed to mirror ours: a burgeoning celebrity culture, use of distortion in advertising, commitment to a single standard of beauty. Women still go to dangerous lengths to “fix” the way they look. And media and advertising still perpetuate such unreasonable standards of beauty that some women are driven to anorexia-inducing behaviors. And, like the Victorians, we also still grapple with our attitudes toward the poor.
Q: What surprised you most about the time period?
SM: The contradictions! I had to try and understand a society that sent such contradictory messages to its young women. “No, let’s not talk about sex but we’ll make sure we emphasize your curves to every advantage. We’ll equip you with every artifice known to catch a man, but let’s not discuss what happens in the bedroom or the nursery. We’ll all go to church on Sunday, but please don’t tax your mind in thinking about the sermons.
Your role in life, the only way to achieve true happiness, is to be a wife and mother, and no, it doesn’t really matter whether you like the groom.” That was a difficult mindset to comprehend.
Q: Your heroine is put through a training regimen to prepare for her debut into society. Did that really happen?
SM: Yes, it really did, though the education generally spanned a period of years rather than weeks. It was very important for a girl to understand the role she was expected to play in society. Social education was both formal and informal, including etiquette as well as religion, voice training, playing an instrument, dancing, handiwork, and household management.
Q: In the same vein, your heroine is quite overwhelmed by the abundant variety of silverware and serving ware that she’s expected to memorize. You can’t tell us there were really lemon forks and marrow shovels. Surely you took some artistic license in inventing them.
SM: There were, and I didn’t! The Victorians also had vase-like celery servers and comb-like cake breakers. Appearances were very important to Victorians in general and to the upper levels of society in particular. This was the period of time in which old money was being challenged by new money. As high society ways were observed and then copied by the lower classes, new rules had to be established to preserve the old boundaries. The Victorians did everything they could think of to differentiate between those who had class and those who did not. They were also reluctant to be placed in the indelicate situation of having to actually touch their food. Thus, dining was meant to set a trap into which the unsuspecting and uneducated could easily fall. So much emphasis was placed on manners and etiquette that the result was a truly astonishing array of arcane implements like lemon forks and cake breakers.
Q: What advice could a Victorian debutante offer to contemporary society?
SM: At its foundation, etiquette and good manners are all about making people feel welcome and placing them at ease. I’m not sure we do such a good job of this today. In some corners of our culture rudeness is applauded and biting, sarcastic comments seem to have replaced more thoughtful and witty humor. Victorian women could teach us quite a bit about focusing our attention on others’ needs. Perhaps they did that to the extent that they gave up more of themselves than they ought to have, but I think we could all stand to lean a little bit more in that direction.
Q: Your heroine’s father, a doctor, appears to be a bit of a quack. Toward the end of the book, you include a recipe for his tonic. Could you enlighten us as to Victorian medicine?
SM: Frankly, I don’t think it ought to be called medicine! It had more in common with medieval rather than modern practices. The Victorians made remarkable advancements in technology and education, but their medical establishment still based much of its “knowledge” on superstition and folk remedies. Tonics like Dr. Carter’s were very popular and common ingredients included massive amounts of alcohol, cocaine, ether, chloroform, opium, belladonna, and digitalis.
Q: What ideas are you exploring in this book? What is the take-away message you want readers to receive after reading your book?
SM: That society will tell you who you are and how to be until you decide for yourself who you are and how you want to be.
Q: Any last word to your readers?
SM: God loves you just the way you are. So many problems, so much heartache comes when we fail to understand that, when we try to evade it or convince God that he really shouldn’t. The best thing you can do is just confront that idea and deal with it. God loves you. Let that knowledge change your life!
© Copyright 2017, Siri Mitchell. All rights reserved
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