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Florence resident Celia Jeffries pens debut novel, ‘Blue Desert’

Some years in the past, Celia Jeffries started writing a narrative about an older English girl trying again on a life she’s stored secret for years: a time when she lived within the Sahara Desert and shed the customs and restraints British ladies confronted within the early twentieth century.

It was a narrative that Jeffries, of Florence, says proceeded in matches and begins. Realizing sooner or later she didn’t have an actual grasp of the Sahara, she immersed herself in books in regards to the land, from historic accounts to travelogues to novels. Then she signed up for an “journey tour” in Morocco that included a five-day trek on camel by way of the desert.

Alongside the way in which as nicely got here a two-year stint within the Peace Corps within the largely desert nation of Botswana, a author’s residency in France that led her to new details about the Sahara, and a visit to London. Now, Jeffries has put all of the items collectively in her debut novel, “Blue Desert,” a narrative that blends historic fiction and journey with an in depth examine of its central character, Alice George.

“Blue Desert,” by Rootstock Publishing of Montpelier, Vermont, additionally seems to be on the injury that may be accomplished to households by maintaining secrets and techniques. And fittingly sufficient for the #MeToo period, it provides a feminist theme in its examination of the alternatives one girl makes at a time when few had been open to her.

In a latest cellphone name, Jeffries, 71, a former newspaper editor and academic writer who now teaches on the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop in Williamsburg, jokingly likened her novel to “a tough long-term relationship — we broke up quite a lot of instances after I tucked it away in a drawer. However finally the story got here collectively in a manner I favored and that made sense.”

The novel toggles backwards and forwards between England, Morocco and stretches of the Sahara within the early twentieth century and a six-day interval in England in 1970. On the heart is Alice, a young person because the 1910s start, and in 1970 a girl now nicely into her 70s who’s haunted by her previous; she’s the story’s major narrator.

The novel’s opening scene shortly establishes the battle on the coronary heart of the narrative. Alice and her husband, Martin, are of their London dwelling in June, 1970, speaking light-heartedly a couple of get together invitation when Martin palms Alice a telegram. She goes pale when she reads it, alarming her husband, who asks what’s unsuitable. Alice at first demurs, then tells Martin that “Abu has died within the desert.”

“Who’s Abu?” asks the bewildered Martin.

“My lover,” Alice responds.

From there, Jeffries unfurls the story: how Alice, at age 16, strikes together with her well-to-do household from southwest England to Marrakesh, Morocco in 1910 due to her father’s enterprise as a material service provider. Alice and her sister, Edith, 14, are entranced by the smells and sights of their new dwelling: “[T]he home was open to gentle and air in methods no constructing in England was. The odor of roses and lemons and oleander adopted us inside after we had been referred to as to proceed our research.”

However Alice, already criticized by her mom for her willfulness and “unladylike” conduct, raises her mom’s hackles additional when she turns into too acquainted with the household’s Moroccan servants: “Alice, please attempt to conduct your self correctly. These persons are not our sort. Don’t intervene.”

New experiences

But Alice’s openness to new experiences will serve her nicely, when following a tragic accident within the desert exterior Marrakesh in 1912, she finally ends up with a touring caravan of Tuareg, semi-nomadic Muslims who historically have lived in elements of the Sahara stretching from Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, and Mali.

Certainly one of Jeffries’ sources for the novel had been books by Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss-born author and explorer of the late nineteenth century who moved to North Africa, the place she dressed as a person and transformed to Islam whereas dwelling within the area.

Jeffries mentioned she hadn’t heard of the Tuareg earlier than a ladies she met at a writing residency at France advised her of the “Blue Males” of northern Africa. Tuareg males put on garments, particularly a mix veil and turban referred to as a tagelmust, which can be dyed with indigo, a shade that may additionally stain their pores and skin.

“Once I started studying about [the Tuareg], I knew this must be a part of the story,” mentioned Jeffries, who notes that the Tuareg have a matrilineal tradition during which ladies, who dwell in settled communities whereas the lads journey, sometimes have extra standing than these in lots of Arabic international locations. “Alice discovers she has extra in frequent with this new tradition than her outdated one, and extra of a way of freedom.”

She is drawn to Abu, the chief of this Tuareg clan, and he to her; she slowly learns the Tuareg language and the rhythms of their nomadic life. Alice and Abu do certainly grow to be lovers, and their union produces a son, Rashid.

Vast-open nation

“Blue Desert” could also be at its finest in its lyrical evocations of the wide-open areas of the Sahara, its assorted terrain and its sudden ferocity at instances. “Nightfall arrived shortly at some point,” the younger Alice recounts. “The wind grew stronger, whipping sand into the sky like sheets of taupe stretched throughout the horizon, erasing the road that outlined our journey.”

“Once I obtained out into the desert, I used to be amazed,” Jeffries mentioned of her journey to Morocco. “It was so peaceable, so uncluttered, so expansive. And it’s far more than simply sand — there are mountains and rock formations and sections the place you’re simply strolling on slabs of rock. It’s majestic.”

Alice testifies to that majesty: She remembers that the desert made her really feel “small and enormous on the similar time. I used to be an ant, an insect, crawling throughout the ground of the world, and I used to be an Amazon, the one girl amongst males, the one white amongst darkish. I’d by no means be so distinct once more.”

But exterior the Sahara, World Struggle I has erupted in Europe, and Alice additionally will be taught that she can not stick with the Tuareg; by way of hazard and heartache, she’ll have to go away her son behind and return to a modified England in 1917, the place she finds that her expertise and the struggle have pushed a wedge between herself, her sister and her mom.

Fifty years later, that wedge between Edith and Alice remains to be there, and Martin, Alice’s sympathetic husband, discovers he additionally doesn’t actually know his spouse. A diplomat who was scarred by his personal expertise serving in WWI, he calls on his contacts in authorities and the enterprise world to assist unravel the thriller of Alice’s life within the desert, in order that he in flip may help her.

All of that is revealed slowly and thoroughly, creating stress and reflecting the attractive and painful reminiscences which have lengthy consumed Alice. Jeffries says her story lastly cemented when she developed the character of Martin; setting the story each throughout WWI and in Nineteen Seventies England additionally allowed her to make use of the stark social modifications ushered in throughout these two eras as a pure backdrop to the emotional tumult of Alice’s life.

And Jeffries says the desert itself, with its broad horizons that may shortly disappear behind a sandstorm, is “form of a metaphor for all times itself, and for Alice’s story. You assume you may see what’s coming — after which simply as all of the sudden, you may’t.”

 Celia Jeffries would be the featured reader for a Could 4 digital open mic, from 7-9 p.m., hosted by Straw Canine Writers’ Guild. For extra  informa tion, vi   sit Jeffries’ web site is

Steve Pfarrer could be reached at

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