A desert awakening: Florence resident Celia Jeffries pens debut novel, ‘Blue Desert’

  • Florence author Celia Jeffries’ debut novel, “Blue Desert,” centers on an Englishwoman whose life changes forever when she lives with a nomadic group of people, the Tuaregs, in the Sahara Desert. Photo by Danielle Tait/courtesy Celia Jeffries

  • “Blue Desert” is the debut novel by Celia Jeffries of Florence, a former newspaper editor and educational publisher who now teaches at the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop in Williamsburg. The book’s striking cover is by Florence graphic designer Lisa Carta. SUBMITTED

  • The main character in “Blue Desert,” Alice George, travels with a group of Tuareg, semi-nomadic Muslims shown here. Tuareg traditionally have lived in parts of the Sahara Desert stretching from modern-day Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina. Photo by Alfred Weidinger/Wikipedia/public domain

Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2021 1:41:35 PM

Some years ago, Celia Jeffries began writing a story about an older Englishwoman looking back on a life she’s kept secret for years: a time when she lived in the Sahara Desert and shed the customs and restraints British women faced in the early 20th century.

It was a story that Jeffries, of Florence, says proceeded in fits and starts. Realizing at some point she didn’t have a real grasp of the Sahara, she immersed herself in books about the land, from historical accounts to travelogues to novels. Then she signed up for an “adventure tour” in Morocco that included a five-day trek on camel through the desert.

Along the way as well came a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in the largely desert country of Botswana, a writer’s residency in France that led her to new information about the Sahara, and a trip to London. Now, Jeffries has put all the pieces together in her debut novel, “Blue Desert,” a story that blends historical fiction and adventure with a close study of its central character, Alice George.

“Blue Desert,” by Rootstock Publishing of Montpelier, Vermont, also looks at the damage that can be done to families by keeping secrets. And fittingly enough for the #MeToo era, it offers a feminist theme in its examination of the choices one woman makes at a time when few were open to her.

In a recent phone call, Jeffries, 71, a former newspaper editor and educational publisher who now teaches at the Pioneer Valley Writers Workshop in Williamsburg, jokingly likened her novel to “a difficult long-term relationship — we broke up a number of times when I tucked it away in a drawer. But eventually the story came together in a way I liked and that made sense.”

The novel toggles back and forth between England, Morocco and stretches of the Sahara in the early 20th century and a six-day period in England in 1970. At the center is Alice, a teenager as the 1910s begin, and in 1970 a woman now well into her 70s who’s haunted by her past; she’s the story’s primary narrator.

The novel’s opening scene quickly establishes the conflict at the heart of the narrative. Alice and her husband, Martin, are in their London home in June, 1970, talking light-heartedly about a party invitation when Martin hands Alice a telegram. She goes pale when she reads it, alarming her husband, who asks what’s wrong. Alice at first demurs, then tells Martin that “Abu has died in the desert.”

“Who is Abu?” asks the bewildered Martin.

“My lover,” Alice responds.

From there, Jeffries unfurls the story: how Alice, at age 16, moves with her well-to-do family from southwest England to Marrakesh, Morocco in 1910 because of her father’s business as a cloth merchant. Alice and her sister, Edith, 14, are entranced by the smells and sights of their new home: “[T]he house was open to light and air in ways no building in England was. The smell of roses and lemons and oleander followed us inside when we were called to continue our studies.”

But Alice, already criticized by her mother for her willfulness and “unladylike” behavior, raises her mother’s hackles further when she becomes too familiar with the family’s Moroccan servants: “Alice, please try to conduct yourself properly. These people are not our kind. Do not interfere.”

New experiences

Yet Alice’s openness to new experiences will serve her well, when following a tragic accident in the desert outside Marrakesh in 1912, she ends up with a traveling caravan of Tuareg, semi-nomadic Muslims who traditionally have lived in parts of the Sahara stretching from Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, and Mali.

One of Jeffries’ sources for the novel were books by Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss-born writer and explorer of the late 19th century who moved to North Africa, where she dressed as a man and converted to Islam while living in the region.

Jeffries said she hadn’t heard of the Tuareg before a women she met at a writing residency at France told her of the “Blue Men” of northern Africa. Tuareg men wear clothes, especially a combination veil and turban called a tagelmust, that are dyed with indigo, a color that can also stain their skin.

“When I began reading about [the Tuareg], I knew this should be part of the story,” said Jeffries, who notes that the Tuareg have a matrilineal culture in which women, who live in settled communities while the men travel, typically have more status than those in many Arabic countries. “Alice discovers she has more in common with this new culture than her old one, and more of a sense of freedom.”

She is drawn to Abu, the leader 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 indeed become lovers, and their union produces a son, Rashid.

Wide-open country

“Blue Desert” may be at its best in its lyrical evocations of the wide-open spaces of the Sahara, its varied terrain and its sudden ferocity at times. “Dusk arrived quickly one day,” the young Alice recounts. “The wind grew stronger, whipping sand into the sky like sheets of taupe stretched across the horizon, erasing the line that defined our journey.”

“When I got out into the desert, I was amazed,” Jeffries said of her trip to Morocco. “It was so peaceful, so uncluttered, so expansive. And it’s much more than just sand — there are mountains and rock formations and sections where you’re just walking on slabs of rock. It’s majestic.”

Alice testifies to that majesty: She recalls that the desert made her feel “small and large at the same time. I was an ant, an insect, crawling across the floor of the world, and I was an Amazon, the only woman among men, the only white among dark. I would never be so distinct again.”

Yet outside the Sahara, World War I has erupted in Europe, and Alice also will learn that she cannot stay with the Tuareg; through danger and heartache, she’ll have to leave her son behind and return to a changed England in 1917, where she finds that her experience and the war have driven a wedge between herself, her sister and her mother.

Fifty years later, that wedge between Edith and Alice is still there, and Martin, Alice’s sympathetic husband, discovers he also doesn’t truly know his wife. A diplomat who was scarred by his own experience serving in WWI, he calls on his contacts in government and the business world to help unravel the mystery of Alice’s life in the desert, so that he in turn can help her.

All of this is revealed slowly and carefully, creating tension and reflecting the beautiful and painful memories that have long consumed Alice. Jeffries says her story finally cemented when she developed the character of Martin; setting the story both during WWI and in 1970s England also allowed her to use the stark social changes ushered in during those two eras as a natural backdrop to the emotional tumult of Alice’s life.

And Jeffries says the desert itself, with its wide horizons that can quickly disappear behind a sandstorm, is “sort of a metaphor for life itself, and for Alice’s story. You think you can see what’s coming — and then just as suddenly, you can’t.”

 Celia Jeffries will be the featured reader for a May 4 virtual open mic, from 7-9 p.m., hosted by Straw Dog Writers’ Guild. For more information, visit strawdogwriters.org. Jeffries’ website is celiajeffries.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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