“The Jeweler’s Polish” by Marie Ann Dean, Hope and Life Press; $24.95. Catholic historical fiction. Available at Religious Supply Center, 1301-1309 Jersey Ridge Road in Davenport, and at www.hopeandlifepress.com, www.amazon.com.
It wasn’t love at first sight, but Davenport author Marie Dean has developed a passion for the Mediterranean island of Malta and chose it for the setting of her first novel, “The Jeweler’s Polish.”
Readers can’t help but be swept into this story of intrigue, faith and love that alternates between the 18th and 21st centuries. Dean describes the genre as Catholic historical fiction.
Emerald Rohan Grady, a young Englishwoman and gifted history graduate of the 21st century, travels to Malta to learn more about her ancestor and namesake, Emerald Esther Maria de Rohan. A noblewoman in the late 18th century and niece of the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, the first Emerald becomes entangled in the French Revolution. Her involvement unfolds in a story that features the Knights of Malta, secret codes inscribed on priceless but tainted jewelry, a ghostly woman from Purgatory, the evil eye, curses, kidnapping and a tombstone in a cave.
“Malta is a numinous place. You walk through the baroque city of Valletta that was created for beauty and you can’t help but be inspired by
the surroundings. And also, the Maltese have very long memories and when they talk about people they are related to in the past, one gets a sense of continuity, which I also find inspiring,” Dean says. “Coming from a pioneer background, we lack that continuity in the U.S.”
The present-day Emerald begins her journey of discovery in a simple Maltese rental flat with a crumpled piece of typing paper on which one line is printed: “Daughter’s grave 200 feet inland from tower near Marsaxlokk.” Emerald also has two small address books with cryptic names written on the back of the inside covers. These prove to be clues to her heritage.
“There is a connection between the two Emeralds,” Dean says. “They’re very much alike in temperament. The 21st century one is a throw-back to the older Emerald. I think young people in this generation lack identity with the past, and so part of this story was the new Emerald realizing how the past impinged on her own history. I think we have an ‘ahistorical’ history. In the 1980s highs schools stopped requiring world history. So these kids don’t really know who they are in the past. But the Maltese do. They have a strong oral tradition. They remember things.”
Dean, a retired teacher from St. Mary Parish in Davenport, said she had fun developing her characters. “You have to remember, contrary to popular belief, women in the 18th century of a certain class were highly educated and the Maltese women today are really intelligent; they have a lot of common sense.”
Her heroines, Dean adds, “are very confident women. And so are the young Maltese women. That’s something I admired. I wanted to communicate it. I was writing a ‘romance’ with a small ‘r;’ writing a romance in the true sense of the word, with imaginary characters who are nothing like me.”
The male characters are memorable as well. Emerald the younger’s partners in discovery are Lucas and Martin, two young Maltese men eager for adventure. A perceptive priest devoted to the faith serves as a mentor, a guide, and a pivot to a sequel to The Jeweler’s Polish.
“Lucas is an irritating character. He’s definitely a foil. Martin is more mature,” Dean explains. “Lucas is very Maltese — he’s probably the most Maltese character in the book: very emotional, very quick to make friends and very quick to make enemies. Malta is a crazy mixture of very high English culture and Mediterranean culture. I tried to make Lucas more real to the audience who is not familiar with Maltese. Martin is more copacetic, laid back. He doesn’t have that Mediterranean intensity that Lucas has.”
Dean, a former blogger and award-winning poet who earned an undergraduate degree at Marycrest College in Davenport and graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, says she wrote “The Jeweler’s Polish” in December 2015 while visiting Malta. She’d been intimidated to write a novel but took the plunge after a Maltese friend told her that the only woman buried in St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta — Anne de Migny — is buried in the tomb of the Grandmaster de Rohan.
“That got me to thinking about the women in the world of the Knights of Malta. Anne is not the main character in my book. It’s the third story in a multi-series I’ve completed.”
(Barb Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger.)