So many fascinating life stories have been lost to the annals of history, but thanks to author Allison Amend, Frances Conway’s tale will not be one of them. Conway was an independent American woman whose path took her far from her native Minnesota. She and her husband set out to live in the Galápagos Islands at the brink of World War II, and she later wrote two memoirs about their time there. These accounts, filled with Conway’s unique sense of humor and self-awareness, captured Amend’s attention and set the author’s imagination aflame. The motivations behind Conway’s drastic move to the Galápagos were somewhat hazy, providing Amend with the opportunity to create her own narrative based on Conway’s life in Enchanted Islands.
In this exclusive essay from the author, we learn why she chose Frances Conway as her muse, the questions that arose in her research, and what she hopes to accomplish in bringing Conway’s story to light.
I have learned, through the writing of four novels (one lives in draft form in a nice box under my bed) that novelists often end up spending a great deal of time in the location where their novels take place. So I set Enchanted Islands in the Galápagos because I had been there as a teenager with my parents and wanted to return. There was an intriguing series of murders/disappearances in the early twentieth century, a sort of Agatha Christie culling of the seven-person population, and I began to do some research on these mysteries (a flamboyant baroness and her lover disappeared; her other lover fled the island, was shipwrecked and died; and a notorious vegetarian philosopher died suspiciously of meat poisoning, all in the span of a couple of years). But two things hampered my investigations: the people involved had written memoirs of the real-life event. And I fell in love with Frances Conway.
I ordered her two memoirs (now out of print) The Enchanted Islands and Return to the Islands, and read them with the hope of gathering information about what daily life was like on Floreana during the last century. I expected to find them a bit dry, and possibly preachy, in the vein of most survivalist memoirs.
But Frances was an extraordinary writer; she was able to bring scenes alive with vivid descriptions and specific, telling details. Moreover, she was funny. She laughed at herself, her foibles, and her naïve hubris. She was able, like the best memoirists, not just to report her exploits but to contemplate their larger meaning, to reflect on them. And this self-awareness made her an appealing potential narrator. When a donkey stole her underwear (one of two precious pairs), she laughed about how the desperation of the scarcity of resources on the island made her chase them as though they were a valuable diamond (I included the escapade in my novel). The episode was humorous, yes, at her own expense, but also illustrated the hardship of her life. This honesty was lacking from the other accounts of the time.
Yet this humor was masking something. There was so much her memoirs didn’t talk about—how she met her much-younger, very attractive husband, why they decided to move to the Galápagos (her excuse about needing to cure her husband’s tuberculosis seems flimsy), how their relationship functioned, what their life was like before and after their journey. Fiction exists in these gaps between the text and subtext—there was a place for me to fill in Frances’ blanks. When I attempted to find out more about her and discovered nothing in the historical record, I was convinced.
I’m often asked why I didn’t change her name, seeing as I’d fictionalized her entire life. I consider her a pioneer, a grand adventuress. I am hoping, with my book, to bring her out of the shadows of history. One of my aims in writing historical fiction is to celebrate those whom history has forgotten. If people look for her memoirs inspired by my book, then I’ve succeeded.