It never occurred to me, when I went to Guatemala in the seventies, that I would write a novel about some of my experiences there – thirty years later.
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.
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.
It took me a dozen years to finally get the book into good enough shape to send to publishers. It took me so long that my agent dumped me! But I’m glad I worked on it as hard as I did. First, I had it critiqued on two websites where it reached the top ten. Then I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest where it reached the semi-finals, and got a good review from a Publishers Weekly reviewer. I think all these things helped it find a home. It was picked up by Napoleon/RendezVous Press who had published my YA mystery, Trial by Fire. Then when RendezVous was sold to Dundurn before my book came out, Dundurn took it on. Publication was delayed for one season, and the book finally hit the shelves in November of 2011.
About Sheila Dalton
Sheila Dalton was born in England and came to Canada with her family at the age of six. She studied English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto. She has worked as a barmaid, an art gallery assistant, and an independent craftsperson and artist.
Sheila was a freelance writer and editor for many years before becoming an Adult Services Librarian for the Toronto Public Library. She lives in Newmarket, Ontario with her husband and two cats. She has written over ten books, including a collection of adult poetry, three children’s picture books, a literary novel, and a YA mystery which was shortlisted for a major Canadian crime writer’s award, the Arthur Ellis.
About The Girl in the Box
Caitlin Shaughnessy, a Canadian journalist, discovers that Inez, a traumatized young Mayan woman originally from Guatemala, has killed Caitlin’s psychoanalyst partner, Dr. Jerry Simpson. Simpson brought the girl, who may be autistic, back to Canada as an act of mercy and to attempt to treat her obvious trauma. Cailin desperately needs to find out why this terrible incident occurred so she can find the strength to forgive and move on with her life.
Inez, whose sense of wonder and innocence touches all who meet her, becomes a focal point for many of the Canadians who encounter her. As Caitlin struggles to uncover the truth about Inez’s relationship with Jerry, Inez struggles to break free of the projections of others. Each must confront her own anger and despair. The doctors in the north have an iciness that matches their surroundings, a kind of clinical armour that Caitlin must penetrate if she is to reach Inez.
The Girl in the Box is a psychological drama of the highest order and a gripping tale of intrigue and passion.