Interview with Mary Louise McCaffrey
A Handful of Sand: A Love Story Woven Into Violent Class Struggle During the French Invasion of Mexico
Reviewed by Cherie Fisher for Reader Views (2/08)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views welcomes Mary Louise McCaffrey, who is here to talk about her new book “A Handful of Sand: A Love Story Woven Into Violent Class Struggle During the French Invasion of Mexico.”
Mary Louise McCaffrey, a former teacher, lives in Fresno, California. She is also the 2006 Yosemite Writers Conference first place short-story winner. “A Handful of Sand” is her first novel.
Tyler: Welcome, Mary Louise. I’m very intrigued to learn more about your book. I have to admit I didn’t know the French had ever invaded Mexico, and I would guess many of our readers do not know that either. Will you begin by telling us about the historical background for your novel?
Mary Louise: In 1823 the U.S. passed the Monroe Doctrine that forbade any new colonization in the Americas by European nations. The Doctrine, still in effect in principal today, was important U.S. policy during 1860-65, the period of “A Handful of Sand.” Emperor Napoleon III of France, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, took advantage of the U.S. being embroiled in the Civil War between North and the South. Aware the U.S. was too busy fighting its own war to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, or to aid its neighbor south of the border, France defied the doctrine and invaded Mexico in 1861.
Tyler: Mary Louise, will you tell us how the political situation in Mexico at the time involves the lovers?
Mary Louise: A civil war had raged for three years between aristocrat Conservatives and Liberal followers of Juarez. The Liberal Army defeated the Conservative Army in early 1861 and Juarez was elected President of the Republic of Mexico.
Since it had been a civil war, the Republic was responsible for debts of both sides. The country was broke from the enormous costs of war, with custom receipts the only source of income. President Juarez issued a decree to default on interest payments to foreign nations for two years, as the only solution to Mexico’s financial problems.
French Emperor Napoleon III used the default on debt as an excuse to invade Mexico. Initially, he sent 10,000 soldiers, and after their defeat at Puebla, he sent 20,000 more. The defeated Conservative Army joined forces with the French invaders. Napoleon III crowned a puppet Emperor of Mexico, the Austrian prince, Maximilian. Through it all, Juarez and the people never gave up.
During the civil war, Miguel’s father supported Juarez, and Isabella’s father was a prominent Conservative, which put the lovers on opposite sides of the war. They avoided talk of the conflict in their clandestine meetings. Later in their relationship, during the French invasion, when Miguel became a colonel in the Liberal Army and Isabella gave secret aid to guerrillas, their lives became more complicated.
Tyler: Without giving away the novel’s end, what was the outcome of this political and historical situation?
Mary Louise: At the end of Civil War in 1865, the U.S. aided Mexico against France—financially by donating arms and supplies to be picked up at the border—politically by warning France to withdraw its troops. Without French support, the Conservative Army crumbled. The victorious Liberal Army returned to Mexico City and the Republic of Mexico and its President Benito Juarez were reinstated.
Tyler: What made you choose to write a novel about this place and time?
Mary Louise: The idea for my novel came from teaching children of migrant farm workers from Mexico about their native country. They celebrated Cinco de Mayo, but few knew the reason why. On May 5, 1862 poorly armed Mexicans defeated a force of 10,000 “best army in the world” French invaders at the Battle of Puebla.
My novel, “A Handful of Sand” is set during that time of violent class conflict between wealthy landowner pro-French aristocrat imperialists and the common people, followers of Benito Juarez fighting to preserve the independent Republic of Mexico and constitutional government, the only way all Mexicans could be equal under law. The love story brings the history to life.
Tyler: The novel centers on the love of two characters who struggle to be together against the caste system in their society. Will you tell us more about this caste system?
Mary Louise: For three hundred years, Mexico was occupied and ruled by Spain, who instituted the caste system. At the top were aristocrat Spaniards born in Spain; next were Creoles, pure blood Spaniards but born in Mexico; below Creoles were mestizos of mixed Spanish and Indian blood; with indigenous Indians and Negro slaves and their descendents at the bottom. In “A Handful of Sand,” Miguel’s mother was pure blood Spanish, but his father was Indian, which made Miguel a mestizo. Isabella’s Spanish father rejected a mestizo as beneath his daughter’s station and unsuitable as a husband.
Tyler: Tell us now about the lovers. What about their love will draw readers in?
Mary Louise: When Isabella’s father rejects Miguel, the two lovers begin a secret second life. Isabella, independent in a male-dominated society, secretly betrays her father and class and helps Juarista guerrillas escape from French pursuers, while Juarista colonel Miguel and his troop raze the invaders on the northern desert. The clandestine love affair woven into tumultuous Mexican history will draw readers in as the star-crossed lovers try to find fulfillment amidst real and perceived betrayals.
Tyler: Will you explain to us what “Juarista” means and what the Juarista guerrillas are trying to accomplish?
Mary Louise: “Juarista” means a follower of Benito Juarez, leader of The Liberal Party, party of the people—as opposed to The Conservative Party, party of the wealthy and powerful.
Juarista guerrillas were not in the Liberal Army. They were common men, rugged patriots from the deserts, hills, and valleys. Skilled horsemen, they made surprise hit-and- run attacks on French outposts, and then quickly as they came, they melted into the hills and their lives as innocent villagers. The French knew only Napoleonic style warfare, with combatants facing each other on an open battlefield, and the War of the French Occupation in Mexico was a massive guerrilla war.
Mexican guerrillas fought to accomplish the dream of Juarez for themselves, equality of all Mexicans.
Tyler: What is the significance of the title, “A Handful of Sand”?
Mary Louise: Have you ever tried to hold a handful of sand? No matter how hard you try to hold it, the sand slips through your fingers. So it was with the love of Miguel and Isabella. Readers should expect to shed tears.
Tyler: What separates “A Handful of Sand” from other tales of star-crossed lovers, such as Romeo and Juliet?
Mary Louise: In feedback from readers, most call the tale of Miguel and Isabella “a beautiful love story.” I think the ending is what separates it from Romeo and Juliet. One reader described the ending of “A Handful of Sand” as “sad, yet happy.” Phyllis Taylor Pianka, author of the Writer’s Digest book “How to Write a Romance” called the ending “bittersweet, but entirely satisfying.” The Romeo and Juliet ending is not satisfying.
Tyler: You mentioned your students did not know the history behind Cinco de Mayo, and that was your impetus for writing “A Handful of Sand,” but what about this time period attracted you enough to keep working on it?
Mary Louise: Research about the specific Cinco de Mayo incident expanded to a greater interest in the little known French invasion. I thought the political intrigue, the violent clash of the classes, the passionate people, and the fabulous terrain of Mexico would make a great novel. I read everything I could about the period, created my characters, and wrote my story—a sort of Latino “Gone with the Wind” as some readers have called my novel.
Tyler: Mary Louise, what do you find most difficult and also most enjoyable about writing historical fiction?
Mary Louise: Most difficult is the research. Facts in historical fiction must be accurate. Also, in writing “A Handful of Sand” it was important to choose and use Spanish words in such a way the meaning would be clearly understood by non-Spanish speaking readers.
Most enjoyable about writing historical fiction is how much you learn. Researching and writing about another time in history is exciting.
Tyler: What would you say was the most exciting or interesting fact you came across in your research?
Mary Louise: That’s a tough question. I can’t pick out one specific fact, but I learned so many interesting things. Often, research about a detail can be very interesting. I’ll give an example.
I wanted to use tumbleweeds in my story. I had to be sure they had tumbleweeds in Mexico in the 1860s or even at all. Through research, I learned that tumbleweeds are Russian thistle, so named because Russian peasants brought them to the U.S. in wheat seed from their homeland to plant on the Great Plains during the Homestead Act of 1862.
But what about Mexico? I kept searching, and learned tumbleweeds have grown in Mexico since ancient times, but Indians use them as animal feed in the green succulent stage. Few dry out and are blown about by the wind. However, some do, so the use of tumbleweeds in my story was okay.
Tyler: Mary Louise, did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Mary Louise: I taught literature and creative writing to my junior high students, and thought about writing but never had time until I retired from teaching.
Tyler: Who are your favorite authors or what books most influence your writing?
Mary Louise: My favorite books are “Gone with the Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Anna Karenina,” and “Killer Angel.” I think they have all influenced my writing to some degree, but eventually, you develop a voice of your own.
Tyler: Do you plan to write more books? Will you continue to write historical fiction, or will you try another genre?
Mary Louise: My current work in progress is also historical fiction, a novel about a youth’s journey by covered wagon from Independence, Missouri to California, and his passage to manhood while enduring hardships on the trail.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Mary Louise. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information may be found there about “A Handful of Sand”?
Mary Louise: Either www.ahandfulofsand.com or www.marylouisemccaffrey.com will take you to my website. Welcome.
“A Handful of Sand” can be ordered from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble online or in store, and from any bookstore.
Tyler: Thank you, Mary Louise. I wish you much luck with your future novels.