The Jewel and the Key: Background

The Wars

When I started writing The Jewel and the Key, I had a vague idea of a time travel novel set in a theater, but it never came together until the day the U.S. started bombing Iraq: “Shock and Awe”. I’d gone to demonstrations, talked to people, emailed my Congressional representatives, because I saw us hurtling towards this conflict I was sure could be avoided. I was convinced from the get-go that there were no weapons of mass destruction. And then, to see the bombs falling!

I’ve mentioned that I teach history. If you teach, you’re also learning all the time. So I’d been studying World War I—inspired by Pat Barker’s amazing novel Regeneration—and had developed a real empathy for the generation who fought in the First World War, a war with such horrifying casualties. The appalling sacrifice just didn’t seem justified by the reasons given for fighting. I saw my own students going off to fight. And then, later, I started having students in my class who were veterans, returning with PTSD—what my World War I characters would have called “shell shock”. Not to mention the effect on Iraqi civilians. I felt there was a powerful mirror between World War I and Iraq and I wanted to explore this in fiction.

I wanted the place that was the conduit between the two times to be a theater, because theaters are so magical in and of themselves, and because of the transformative power of the stage. And Seattle has gorgeous old theaters, many of which have been ‘brought back to life’ as the Jewel is in the story. I saw this theme of rebirth as a strong and positive counterweight to the theme of war.

From these starting points, the characters just started leaping out at me: Addie with her intense imagination and intoxication with the theater, her best pal Whaley, so troubled but so good-hearted, wanting to go off to war for all those idealistic reasons. And then the inhabitants of the Jewel in 1917: Reg, that intense and talented boy, who Addie falls for almost at once, Meg, the director, and the fugitive Wobbly, Gustav Peterson, on the run from the law after the Everett Massacre. I knew there would be a connection between two boys, Reg and Whaley, trying to go off and fight two different wars for their own reasons and there would be others seeing the war quite differently, and passionately trying to stop it.

The Wobblies

Funeral Everett Massacre What about the Wobblies? When I started researching 1917 in Seattle, I realized there was another war, of sorts going on. It was the war between organized labor and the owning classes (the people we’re now called the 1%), whose interests were usually supported by the government. The Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, were agitating for organizing rights. Cities such as Everett and Spokane tried to stifle the union by denying them the right to speak on street corners about their union struggles. So the Wobblies started what they called “Free Speech Fights” – sending union members into the cities to speak out despite the ban and go to jail.

However, when one shipload of Wobblies arrived in Everett in Nov of 1916, they were met by the Snohomish sheriff’s office and a large number of deputies, spoiling for a fight. They refused to let the Wobblies dock and demanded who the leader was. When the Wobblies replied “We are all leaders” things got ugly. Shots were exchanged. Most witnesses say the sheriff’s department fired first. Lives were lost on both sides, though more on the Wobbly side. At this point, 74 union members were arrested (none of the vigilantes or any member of the sheriff’s office were investigated) and an important political trial was set in motion.