The Hidden Women of the Panama Canal by Marlie Parker Wasserman

When I queried agents about my novel on Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, one sent back a memorable reply. “Teddy Roosevelt,” she said, “that’s a man’s topic and readers will expect a man to write about it.” I considered that reply foolish, but it jolted me into clarifying that there was more to the story of the Canal than the efforts of officials and laborers.

Yes, obviously, Teddy Roosevelt was a man—often considered a man’s man, whatever that phrase means—and he worked with a group of trusted officials and depended on men to do the dredging and the shovel work. But with a little research, I found the women in the story.

The outline of my novel, Path of Peril, is straightforward. Roosevelt visited the site of the Panama Canal over a week in 1906, and I imagine various assassins taking that opportunity to kill him. I knew the assassins would be men and their henchmen and funders would be men. But I also knew I could imagine the experiences of the women around them, experiences that for the most part had gone untold.

First in line: Teddy’s second wife, Edith Roosevelt. His beloved first wife died two days after giving birth to a daughter, Anna. Shortly after, Teddy married his childhood companion, Edith. She raised Anna and bore five children of her own. Edith’s biographer portrays the first lady as reserved, religious, well-educated, and loving. I knew that Edith accompanied Teddy on the trip to Panama, wearing the long white gown and white bonnet favored by wealthy women visiting the tropics. In the first picture below we see her standing on the back of a train, wearing a veil. In the second, we see her seated next to her husband on the open-car train they used to travel across Panama.

Edith Roosevelt was not the only first lady in Panama that week. Panama’s president, Manual Amador, was married to Maria. I learned that Maria was richer than Edith, feistier, and more likely to openly advise her husband on politics and strategy. During the week at the center of my novel, the two first ladies sat together at dinners and crossed paths at receptions. What did Maria think about lovely, proper Edith? I envision a connection between Edith and Maria, both still in love with their husbands and worried about their safety. Only five years before, the previous U.S. president, McKinley, had been assassinated. Edith Roosevelt, warned of new threats, was on high alert. Did she share her worries with Maria Amador?

In addition to two white, wealthy women connecting in friendship, thousands of other women lived and worked around the Canal. Many traveled there in the early 1900s, seeking work or adventure or husbands. I follow one in particular—nurse Maureen McGowan. Although she is a fictional character, she represents many of the nurses who arrived to help heal patients from diseases and from the explosions and accidents that harmed workers. She has her eye on Dr. Robert Peterson who traveled to Panama, leaving a cushy job in Philadelphia. Inexperienced in love and eager to land a husband, Maureen feels a new sense of freedom in a country where no one is watching. Dr. Peterson, though, has secrets of his own. Their courtship weaves throughout the novel, with an ending that even I, as the writer, did not expect.

In addition to the nurses and teachers who came to Panama to work, many young women from Barbados and Jamaica came to accompany their boyfriends and husbands—the men who did much of the labor of building the Canal. I tried to portray what life might be like for a young woman, Aletha Thompson, who had never left her parish in Barbados, to sail to Panama and then find work cleaning house for an engineer and his wife. Similarly, I tried to portray what life might be like for that engineer’s wife, who came from Troy New York and had never been out of the U.S. before. What if the engineer has a wandering eye and his wife, excited to have a servant for the first time ever, is a nasty taskmaster? What if a good-looking peddler spots Aletha and seeks out her company? How will she manage the engineer’s jealousy? I tell the story of Aletha, but also the story of countless women from the islands who found themselves in service.

In addition to the wives who accompanied managers and engineers, and the women who worked as cleaners and laundresses, a number of women served as sex workers, either in well-appointed or squalid establishments. I imagined women in each of these categories, making sure that they drove some of the action. Some were victims, some were entrepreneurs.

The official tale of the first presidential trip abroad does indeed center around men, but women stood all around that center, sustaining it and shaping it.

Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, hiking, and sketching. After spending decades in NJ, she has settled in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband Mark.

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