I’ve been a fan of Susan Meissner’s writing since I read her much-acclaimed novel, THE SHAPE OF MERCY. So I’m delighted that she’s with us today, sharing about her latest novel. We’ve got a copy of A FALL OF MARIGOLDS up for grabs today. See the entry form below for details.
A couple years ago I watched a documentary by author and filmmaker Lorie Conway called Forgotten Ellis Island; a hauntingly poignant exposé on the part of Ellis Island that no one has heard much about; its hospital. The two man-made islands that make up the hospital buildings haven’t been used in decades and are literally falling into ruins. The lingering images of rooms where thousands upon thousands from a hundred nations waited to be made well stayed with me. There had to be countless stories pressed into the walls and bricks and panes of glass of this hospital, stories of immigrants who were just a stone’s throw from a new life. But unless they were cured of whatever ailment they had arrived with, they would not set foot on America’s shores. Ellis Island hospital was the ultimate waiting room– it lay between what was and what could be. A great place to set a story.
When I first began pulling at plot threads, my first instinct was to tell a story about an immigrant struggling to remain hopeful while a patient at Ellis Island hospital. But the more I toyed with whose story this was, and the more photographs I looked at, the more I saw instead a young nurse, posting herself to a place that was no one’s address. The dozens of languages spoken at Ellis added to the unnatural homelessness of it. Why was this nurse here? Why did she choose this post? Why did she refuse to get on the ferry on Saturday nights to reconnect with the real world? What kind of person would send herself to Ellis not just to work, but to live? I knew something life-changing had to happen to her to make her run to Ellis for cover. As I began researching possible scenarios, I came across the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which up until 9/11 was arguably the worst urban disaster to befall Manhattan. There were similarities between that fire and 9/11, including the tragic fact that many trapped workers jumped to their deaths rather than perish in the flames. For every person lost in disasters such as these, there is always his or her individual story, and the stories of those who loved them. I wanted to imagine two of those stories.
I knew I wanted something a person could touch, see, and embrace to tie these two stories together. I chose a scarf for rather deeply metaphorical reasons; they are accessories. They are meant to draw attention to something bigger. In this case, the scarf patterned in marigolds, and which links two women who will never meet, is there to draw attention to something far bigger than just the wearer. The book that evolved from looking at those haunting images of Ellis Island’s past is a story about the resiliency of the human spirit. It is centered on the truth that love, though the loss of it can tear your soul in two, is still the grandest thing there is, and is ultimately what will mend that heart that is broken.
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In 1911, nurse Clara Wood witnesses the death of the man she loves in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and chooses to bury her grief and regret while ministering to sick immigrants on Ellis Island. Insulated from the rest of New York and the world, she refuses to set foot on the mainland, even on her days off. When an emigrant Welshman arrives wearing his deceased wife’s distinctive scarf, Clara finds herself drawn to the man and what she perceives as shared grief. But then she discovers something about the man’s wife that he does not know which places Clara in a moral dilemma while she ponders the depths and resiliency of love. Interwoven into Clara’s tale is the story of 9/11 widow and single mother Taryn Michaels, whose specialty fabric shop seems to cushion her against the overwhelming regret she’s known since witnessing the fall of the North Tower on September 11. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, a newly published photo of Taryn watching the towers fall forces her to not only relive the event but face again the guilt of knowing that had she made different decisions that day, her husband would’ve lived. The story is about the resiliency of love, and the notion that the weight of the world is made more bearable because of it, even though it exposes us to the risk of loss.