Sheila Dalton has published books for adults, teens and children. Her first book was a novel, Tales of the Ex-FireEater, followed by a book of poetry, Blowing Holes through the Everyday. When her son was little, she took up writing for children, and has three picture books and a number of non-fiction works to her credit. She’s also published a mystery for Teens, Trial by Fire, which was shortlisted for a Crime Writers of Canada Award. Below she talks about her latest novel, a literary mystery, The Girl in the Box.
How The Girl in the Box came to be
The trip was an exploration rather than a vacation. My girlfriend and I set off with no itinerary and no hotel reservations in a naive effort to see the “real” Central America. We really didn’t know what we were doing, but it was the age of adventure, and we were eager to see the world. I wanted to write, and I felt I couldn’t do that until I had more experience, and knew more about other peoples and places.
We had some hair-raising experiences, but we were incredibly lucky, and returned home unharmed after our four month adventure. Guatemala was in the midst of its decades-long Civil War, in which government soldiers were pitted against guerrillas fighting for the rights of the Maya in the hills.
We traveled on second-class buses, and on one such trip, the bus was stopped by armed soldiers who took Mayan men away with them. They never returned. We found out later they had been killed. The fear in their eyes stayed with me for a very long time.
I later learned that the Maya were often caught in the middle: if they helped the guerrillas, by feeding or housing them in their villages, the soldiers retaliated in grossly violent ways. If they refused to help the rebels, they were punished by them, too. They couldn’t remain neutral, and yet that is what many of them wanted to do.
That sense of helplessness in the face of international issues stayed with me, too. I wanted to write about this beautiful country and the tragedy of its history, but I found on return to Canada, that it did not feel right to turn it into fiction.
Many years later, the image of a beautiful teenage girl kept hidden under lock and key came to me. She wasn’t related to Guatemala at first, and her appearance in my imagination might have had more to do with the many stories in the press about women held captive, and my interest in feral children; also press coverage of mentally ill children who were chained or locked away by parents in Third World countries who could not afford or access mental health care.
Whatever her origins, Inez, as I called her, eventually became Mayan, and the victim of violence and ignorance. Later, details of how a North American doctor rescued her from this ghastly situation and took her back to Canada with him came to mind. Then I began thinking about how experiencing such vast trauma at such a young age might affect someone like Inez. The story built from there.
Inez is mute, and the reader can’t tell whether this is a physical or mental condition, or a combination of both. When the doctor’s long-time partner, Caitlin, discovers that Inez has killed him, there is no way for her to find out why.
Caitlin is tortured by this, as she has come to be fond of Inez herself. The girl had become part of her and Dr. Simpson’s lives, as she lived with the doctor while he searched for residential treatment for her. Inez’s qualities of innocence and trust endeared her to all who met her – but what dark secrets did her occasional fits of temper and long howling spells hide?
Inez is found not guilty by virtue of insanity of Dr.Simpson’s death, and is sent to a psychiatric facility for the criminally insane in the far North of Canada, where she is likely to remain until she dies. Caitlin finally finds the courage to confront her own fears and demons and visit her there.
The effect of this visit is dramatic and not at all what Caitlin had hoped for, but it does result in a resolution to the mystery of what occurred between Dr. Simpson and Inez on the fateful morning of his death.
The Girl in the Box is due out from Dundurn Press in November, and is available now for purchase from Amazon. You can learn more about it and about Sheila, at her website: http://sheila-anne-dalton.com
If you’d like to read Sheila’s book, there is a giveaway going on at Goodreads right now for one of three signed copies – make sure to check it out at http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/13787-the-girl-in-the-box
Sheila, thank you so much for joining us today! The Girl in the Box sounds like a wonderful story and a real page-turner – I’m sure it’ll be a huge success!