The price of secrets: Florence author’s newest novel explores the legacy of Guatemala’s civil war

Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It took Jacqueline Sheehan a while to find her stride. Yet the literary late-bloomer says she always had an affinity for writing, and to that skill she also brought a professional appreciation of the emotional struggles people go through.

Sheehan, of Florence, is a best-selling novelist who’s built a growing fan base in the past several years with a number of books that profile characters dealing with the aftermath of loss. That’s something she’s experienced herself — and as a former psychologist who’s now made a transition to full-time writing (and teaching writing), she’s also counseled many people in their grief.

In her new novel, “The Center of the World,” Sheehan has tackled some of those themes anew while adding a page-turning element involving the Guatemalan Civil War and the desperate choice a young American graduate student faces when she’s caught up in the violence.

The novel, Sheehan’s fifth, also explores the mother-daughter bond and the complexities of adoption in a story that Publishers Weekly says “expertly carries [its] narrative through war and peace, fear and security, and love and redemption.”

In a recent interview at her home, Sheehan, who’s 65, says she actually starting working on the new book back around 2008 but put it aside for some time, in part because her publisher, HarperCollins, wanted her to write a sequel to her second novel, 2007’s “Lost & Found,” which became a New York Times bestseller and was later optioned for film by the actress Kathryn Heigl.

“Lost & Found,” a story about a suddenly widowed psychologist who moves to a tiny island off the coast of Maine as she attempts to rebuild her life, was followed by “Now and Then” in 2009 and then the “Lost and Found” sequel, “Picture This,” in 2012. But Sheehan says she’d always intended to finish “The Center of the World” — it just took a while to find the time to do so.

“HarperCollins offered me a pretty good deal to write that sequel, so it was hard to say no,” she said with a laugh. “But this was an important book for me, too, one that’s a little bit different.”

For starters, a good part of the book takes place in Guatemala, both in 1990, toward the end of the country’s 30-year civil war, and in 2003 (the Valley serves at the setting for the other parts). Much of the story is also set in the Guatemalan highlands, home of the Mayan people and a regular destination for Sheehan for much of the past decade: She’s been going there in winter both to visit and to run writing workshops and has developed a real appreciation for the Mayans.

“They have a way of looking at the world that is so different from the way we do,” she said. “There’s a lot of importance on family and homeland and in maintaining the bonds with your ancestors. And their religion is a kind of mix of native spirituality and some parts of Catholicism — I really like it.”

Secrets and lies

In “The Center of the World,” the connection to Guatemala is established pretty quickly — and to devastating effect. Fifteen-year-old Sofia, a budding soccer star growing up in Leverett, has always understood that she’s from Mexico. At least that’s what her adoptive mother, Kate, has told her, and Sofia was too young when she left her original home to have anything but the haziest memories of life outside the United States.

Kate and Sofia are both grieving when the novel opens because Martin, Kate’s husband and Sofia’s stepfather, has recently died after being hit by a car while bicycling. Then their world is torn open even more completely. Sofia learns, through a posthumous letter from Martin that she receives via his lawyer, that she was actually born in Guatemala — and that Kate, who lost her own mother when she was 15, did not legally adopt her.

It’s part of an extensive series of lies that Kate, a water analyst with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, created to protect Sofia and herself from a terrible past — one that involved a massacre of Mayan villagers, including Sofia’s mother, by Guatemalan troops and a sudden decision by Kate, then a graduate student in the area studying high-altitude Lake Atitlan, to rescue 2-year-old Sofia and somehow get her out of the country.

When Sofia finally hears the true story of her origins — about the threats Kate faced not just from the Guatemalan military but from shadowy U.S. operatives in Guatemala, who were providing under-the-table support for the regime — she lashes Kate with the words many adoptive parents dread to hear: “You’re not my mother.” It’s not clear how this new chasm between mother and daughter will be bridged.

Writing about loss

Sheehan, who grew up in southwestern Connecticut, says she always had an affinity for words. But after getting an undergraduate degree in anthropology, with a minor in art — she split her time between the University of Northern Colorado and Western Connecticut University — she didn’t pursue writing at first because, she added with a laugh, “I was floundering. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

She lived out West — New Mexico, Oregon and California — for about 20 years, trying her hand at a number of things: freelance photography, house-painting, directing a troupe of high school puppeteers. She also did a stint as a feature writer for a New Mexico newspaper — a job she loved, she said, but that didn’t pay enough to live on — and then developed an interest in psychology, eventually getting a doctorate in the field from New Mexico State University.

After she’d found work as a psychologist, including working as a counselor in a health center in northern California, her interest in writing was renewed, sparked in part by the stories she heard from her clients. “I write about the experience of loss,” she said. “There’s no end to the different and often weird ways that people deal with grief.”

Sheehan moved back East in 1995 to take a job as a psychologist at Westfield State University, settling in Florence and discovering the Valley was full of other writers. She wrote her first two books — “The Comet’s Tale,” an historical novel about abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and then “Lost and Found” — while working full time at Westfield. In 2006, she decided to leave her position to devote more time to writing; she opened a part-time private psychology practice to help pay the bills.

“It was a scary decision in a lot of ways,” Sheehan said. “Like jumping off a cliff. I’d wake up at night with my heart thumping, thinking, ‘What have I done?’ But fortunately it’s worked out.”

Real-life massacre

“The Center of the World” is built around another proverbial jump off the cliff — Kate’s decision to rescue Sofia after soldiers have shot down a streetful of Mayans in a small town. Kate, heart pounding, steps over a pile of bodies when she hears the girl’s cries: “She picked up the child, loosely wrapped the red cloth over her, and held her to her chest. One soldier ... pointed his gun at her, raised it to her chest. The sound of a bottle breaking on stone made him turn his head ... with a nod to the soldier next to him, he lowered his gun and walked toward the sound.”

Sheehan based the scene on a real massacre that took place in 1990 and became worldwide news because a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, Mary Jo McConahay, was there and got the story out. Other scenes were also drawn from research Sheehan did on the last years of the Guatemalan Civil War, and from interviews she did with staff at a Guatemalan adoption agency.

These make for some of the most disturbing parts of the book, though the violence is leavened by fine physical descriptions of the Guatemalan highlands: steep jungle trails, the volcanic mountains ringing Lake Atitlan, towns with narrow cobblestone streets and the smell of wood smoke from sidewalk vendors making tortillas.

But the heart of the story explores the relationships between Kate, Sofia, Sam (Kate’s father), and a number of other characters (including a lost love of Kate’s), and the havoc that secrets can create, even between loving and well-meaning people. In “The Center of the World,” Kate may have no choice but to bring Sofia back to her native village in Guatemala if she wants to regain her daughter’s trust.

Sheehan, who in addition to leading writing workshops has published essays and radio commentaries, says she won’t be traveling to Guatemala this winter, as she’s doing publicity work for the new novel, just published by Kensington Books in New York City. And, she added with a wry smile, she’s behind on her deadline for her next novel, “The Tiger in the House.”

“I’ve got plenty to do this winter right here at home,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

Jacqueline Sheehan will read from “The Center of the World” Jan. 24, at 3 p.m., at a book-launch at Broadside Books in Northampton. She also regularly participates with the local Straw Dog Writers Guild, which sponsors an open mic night for writers on the first Tuesday of every month, from 7 to 9 p.m., at The Basement, also in Northampton.


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