‘On Hurricane Island’: War on Terror at center of local novelist’s new thriller

Last modified: Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Since a fateful day in September 2001, going through airport security has been quite the drill. Show your ID along with your ticket. Empty your pockets and get your carry-on baggage ready to be sent through an electronic scanner. Take off your shoes and step into a full-body scanner while people in uniform look you over.

But how much worse might it be if some of those tough-looking security guards took you aside, quietly told you to come with them, and escorted you away without further explanation?

Those thoughts flashed through Ellen Meeropol’s mind several years ago as she was going through security herself to board a flight at JFK International airport in New York — and it was pretty much then that the idea for her new novel, “On Hurricane Island,” was born.

“I started wondering what would happen to an ordinary person who was flagged by (security), and at that point the main character just popped into my head,” Meeropol, 68, said during a recent interview at her Easthampton home. “She was fully fleshed out — I knew her name and profession. I like to say I saw her taken away, hooded and cuffed, and that I wrote the book to find out what happened to her.”

Meeropol, the author of a previous novel, “House Arrest,” and numerous short stories, is a literary late bloomer who took up serious writing about 12 years ago following a career as a nurse practitioner. With “On Hurricane Island,” she’s fashioned a tense thriller about the domestic fallout from the 13-year-old War on Terror, as well as a drama about how people respond both to a physical crisis and their own conscience.

Gandalf Cohen, an aging college math professor, is passing through security at JFK, en route to a conference in Michigan, when she’s suddenly grabbed by federal agents, blindfolded, and flown to a detention center on Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine — all this just days before a 9/11 anniversary. There she’ll be interrogated by the FBI about a possible link to terrorists, even as the two lead agents can’t agree on the best approach.

Austin Coombs, a young local woman now working as a civilian assistant to the agents, is increasingly unsure of what she’s signed up for. Meanwhile, a real hurricane is bearing down on the area, and everyone — including Austin’s family and other locals — will soon to be forced to decide where their loyalties lie.

Told through the voices of multiple narrators with different viewpoints, “On Hurricane Island,” published by Red Hen Press of California, is first and foremost a story, Meeropol says. But it also raises important questions about post-9/11 America. How far should the government go in the name of protecting national security? And how safe are civil liberties in the age of extraordinary rendition and “enhanced” interrogation?

“It’s clearly a partisan book in that you can sense what my feelings are about his stuff,” Meeropol said. “But I didn’t want it to be propaganda, I didn’t want it to be a lecture. ... The main thing is to write a story that people are going to want to stay with, where they’ll care about the characters, care about what’s at stake.”

She also brings some deep background to the issue. Her husband, Robert Meeropol, is the younger son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, for spying for the former Soviet Union. She has also worked for the nonprofit group her husband created, the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which provides financial and academic help to children whose parents have been imprisoned for political activism.

“There’s a clear similarity between the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s and the anti-terrorist hysteria now,” she said. “And in both those situations, government has used that hysteria to increase their powers.”

Follow the character

There is a real Hurricane Island in Maine, a very small isle that’s near two larger islands, North Haven and Vinal Haven, which are east of the city of Rockland and southwest of Acadia National Park. Though the island in the book is fictional, Meeropol has drawn on the history and setting of that area, which she has visited, to build her novel.

With a laugh, she says she’s not generally a big fan of mysteries and thrillers and wasn’t sure at first why she was writing one. “I kept saying to people in my manuscript group, ‘What am I doing?’ and they would say, ‘Just follow your character, follow your story, see where it takes you.’ That’s how this came about.”

Then there were the stories of U.S. torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at other overseas prisons, as well as revelations of foreign citizens abducted by U.S. authorities and sent to CIA “black sites” — off-the-grid overseas prisons where people were held for months and tortured. Given that, Meeropol said, “It seemed fair to ask, ‘Could that happen at home?’ ”

In the character of 60-year-old Gandalf Cohen (her mother was obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” the book explains), Meeropol creates a vivid portrait of the emotional ride an abductee might experience: terror, rage, despair and grief. Locked in a cell at the detention center on Hurricane Island after being grabbed in New York, Gandalf tries to stay calm: “It is hard work, not giving in to the sickening waves of apprehension, to the accelerating spirals of fear.”

In the meantime, the two FBI men charged with interrogating her are at odds about how to proceed. Henry Ames, the senior agent and a 25-year veteran of the Bureau, is proud of his career but has serious doubts about the new anti-terror tactics, or whether Gandalf has any terrorist links. But his next-in-command, Tobias Sampson, is ready to do anything necessary to get the information headquarters wants, and he’s increasingly contemptuous of Henry’s views.

“If she knows something, we’ll find it,” Tobias vows.

“And we’ll do it by the rules,” Henry says sharply.

“Which rules are those, Boss? The rules have changed.”

Meeropol also builds a separate story line around Austin, the young local civilian employee, and her grandparents, Ray and Nettie, who have raised her since childhood and are disturbed by her new job; she’s not allowed to talk about it, but they sense there’s something amiss. Austin dreams of saving money to move to Texas and find the father who abandoned her — but then she discovers a family secret that goes back generations and has a bearing on her own life.

“I really believe so much of what we do comes from what we inherit from our past generations — stories and beliefs and secrets being covered up or distorted,” Meeropol said. “It felt very organic developing that part of the story.”

Austin also becomes horrified by Tobias who, ignoring Henry’s orders, takes over Gandalf’s interrogation — with increasingly abusive methods. Gandalf’s alleged link to terrorism is an online math forum through which she’s in touch with an old Pakistani colleague, a man federal officials believe may be part of a terror cell. Tobias, who’s convinced he’s doing the hard work needed to keep the country safe, is intent on developing that link.

But as the hurricane descends on the region and chaos is unleashed, survival becomes the watchword for Austin, Gandalf and everyone else, with wind so strong it “knocks the breath from (Austin’s) chest. It slams into both ears and forces its way into her brain, banishing all other sound. It tears at her skin, wraps itself around her throat, kicks against the back of her knees.”

Provocative issues

As part of her research, Meeropol says, she read memoirs and first-person accounts of interrogation, as well as “The Dark Side,” a 2008 book by New Yorker writer Jane Meyer about the War on Terror. She also found online military manuals for specific interrogation techniques and language that appear in her novel, such as the acronym “SLIC” — strip, lights, isolation, cold.

Given the controversy that arose in the past decade over these issues, she says, it would be logical that “There would be different levels of commitment to the methods, different levels of ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ among the security forces. Some (personnel) are good, some are not so good.”

Working these issues into a novel, one with multiple narrators with different viewpoints, seems a very accessible means of addressing them, she adds. “It gives the reader the option of figuring out where he or she fits into the story, because these are provocative issues that we all have to think about as citizens.”

And though she says she’s not trying to send a message with her novel, Meeropol suggests that many people share her disillusion with the U.S. government, “both in terms of the political powers that have been seized ... as well as the collusion between big business and government.

“But I’m a naturally pretty optimistic person,” she added, “so I have hope that people will fight back against the things that are done in our name that are so clearly wrong.”

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

Ellen Meeropol will read from her novel April 20 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, as part of the store’s monthly “Open Fiction” book discussion group. The group is open to anyone who has read the book and wants to join the conversation. Meeropol will also be part of a “Celebration of Local Novelists” on May 6 at 7 p.m. at Forbes Library in Northampton.


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