Sara Ackerman is well-known for her compelling historical fiction novels about romance, friendship, and courage in WWII-era Hawai‘i. Her latest novel, Radar Girls, is based on the inspirational stories of the Women's Air Raid Defense, whose job was to track unidentified aircrafts in the Pacific. Join us for another da Shop Talk with Sara to chat about her inspiration for Radar Girls, writing during the pandemic, her unforgettable characters, and more.
While doing research for your historical novels, you must discover so many untold stories that could all be expanded or reimagined into their own books. What was it about the stories of the Women’s Air Raid Defense (WARD) that compelled you to want to write Radar Girls?
I first came across their story while researching for The Lieutenant’s Nurse, and right away knew I had to write a novel about them. Their unit was formed in the Hawaiian islands by emergency Executive Order 9063 immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. These brave women were sworn to secrecy and only told that they would be performing critical secret work for the army. More importantly, that they would be responsible for protecting their home and their country. Radar stations and command centers were formed on every island and staffed with local women, military wives, and recruits from the Mainland. Code name: Rascal.
Photo Credit: Shuffleboard Pilots: The History of the Women's Air Raid Defense in Hawaii 1941-1945 (Arizona Memorial Museum Assn, 1991)
SA: Sadly, most of the women have passed on, and I was not able to speak to any of them, but I found a fabulous book called Shuffleboard Pilots: The History of the Women’s Air Raid Defense in Hawaii, which offers first hand accounts and details of their time as WARDs. I would not have been able to write my book about it, and am so grateful that it exists. Honestly, there wasn’t nearly as much information as I thought there would be about such an important piece of American history. I feel like I covered just about everything of interest that I could squeeze in!
Also, as a young girl growing up in the early 70s in Hawaii, the war still seemed fresh in everyone’s mind. I was raised on the stories of my grandparents and parents, who lived in the islands when war came to our doorstep. They spoke of soldiers camped out in their living room on weekends (my grandfather was the school principal in Honoka‘a and my grandma was a teacher), of nearly getting shot for walking down the street at night, and of hiding out in a lava tube when they first got wind of the attack. Back then, no one knew how the war would end. Fear and paranoia ran rampant, but so did courage and strength and hope. In all my books, I draw from their stories as well as other books and interviews I’ve collected over the course of writing five WWII Hawai‘i historical novels.
As someone who writes about Hawai‘i’s past but lives here in the present, I wonder if you sometimes see through two timelines. Does your work impact the way you experience landmarks, landscapes, and modern spaces in Hawai‘i?
SA: I think I do! Everywhere I go, I find remnants and pieces of history. Before I was an author, I didn’t even notice a lot of it. But if you look closely, there are overgrown air strips, monuments, bunkers, hideaway houses, old internment camps, decaying amphibious vehicles, and so on all over the place. I’m always out hiking and exploring and whenever I find something, I go look it up, and sure enough, there is usually a story behind it. This was especially true for me at Volcano, which played a much more important role in the war than I thought, and I had so much fun learning about all of it while writing my third novel, Red Sky Over Hawaii.
I also find it so interesting that when you talk to elders about the attack on Pearl Harbor, they all tell you how they could see the whole thing from town – black smoke, burning ships. Back then, there were no tall buildings, so you could actually see all the way across Honolulu and out towards Ewa. I wish I could go back in time, though maybe not to December 7!
The setting of 1940s O‘ahu plays a critical role in establishing the context for the characters of Radar Girls. Are there particular challenges or opportunities in writing a wartime story set in Hawai‘i to a national audience?
SA: When an author intimately knows the setting, I believe it translates to a more authentic experience for the reader. Having grown up here, that makes it easy for me. Little details like what time of year the ginger blooms, the smell of burning sugar cane, or how cool the temperatures are in December, can make a big impression. I’ve often said that setting is its own character. I love to be transported when I read a novel, and I hope to do the same in my books. When I’m writing, I am not thinking about the audience as much as telling the story I need to tell.
Bookriot recently said this about Radar Girls, “Deliciously visceral, readers will be transported into the dreamy Hawaiian backdrop.”
Radar Girls depicts personal stories of tragedy, disruption, love, courage, and reinvention through times of insecurity and collective fear -- sounds all too familiar for us as readers living through a pandemic. What was it like to write about these fictional characters’ lives as true stories of heartbreak and bravery played out in real time?
To answer your question, I’ll share part of a blog entry I wrote in spring of 2020:
“....Being on an island in the middle of the Pacific has its pros and cons. We have plenty of fresh air and sunshine, but are heavily reliant on imported food and goods. Any kind of breakdown in supply is potentially catastrophic. On December 8, 1941, lines stacked up outside of grocery stores, which were ordered to close at 4:30 pm and not open again until they had taken inventory. It was found that Oahu had a 37 day supply of most staple foods and 75 day supply of flour and cereals. With Japanese subs lurking in the surrounding waters, ships had all but ceased movement to and from the islands. Everyone was given a ration booklet and Martial Law ordered, with blackouts and curfews and evacuation orders. There are no blackouts here now, but Mayor Kawakami on Kauai has put in place a curfew and a curfew was announced on Oahu over Easter weekend. Anything not deemed essential has been shuttered and we are ordered to shelter in place.
Image of Una Walker, who helped recruit the WARDs on O‘ahu, Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0
Daisy, the protagonist of Radar Girls, favors action in times of fear, often putting herself at great risk to find justice and protect those she loves. What do you imagine Daisy would have been doing through the pandemic?
SA: I think she would be jumping in to help out in whatever way she could. Delivering meals, helping the kupuna, growing a garden, and of course, out diving for fish.
Speaking of Daisy, I love that her preferred space is the natural world. She is completely at ease under the ocean’s surface or with the horses. What is your sanctuary, your space of refreshment?
SA: Nature. I am outside every chance I get. Whether it be walking on the beach or in the forest, swimming in the ocean or streams (I love Waimea on the Big Island because of all its mountain streams), hiking at Volcano, visiting the albatross at Kaena Point. Nature is my salvation.
Lastly, what are you reading these days?
SA: I wish I had more time to read! I just finished writing and doing a first round of revisions on my next novel, which I’m calling The Last Plane to Honolulu, so I have had my head in the clouds. My most recent reads have been: The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin, The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, and The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab (releases Oct). Do you sense a theme here, lol? All are excellent reads!