Under the Spell of the Moon on Savage Island
Glenn Miller was the king of swing until his plane disappeared over the English Channel in 1944. He’d been in London, broadcasting both entertainment and counter-propaganda when he got on a single engine plane to Paris, never to be heard from again.
When I was a little kid, growing up in the late 1970s amongst the schizoid dichotomy of flash and frowzy bad taste, I came across one of Glenn Miller’s albums in my grandparents’ sparse record collection. One that consisted almost entirely of polka. Miller offered me zip and glamour from the get-go. A sense of style that had gusto and a yen for a time that seemed better to me somehow. Clear and dignified, populated by people with a back bone, who dressed up for life. Fixed their hair, tipped their hat. People like my grandparents, but minus the polka.
Even when my hip, older step-sister, the one who had an actual disco dancing outfit complete with purple satin pants and Candies stilleto sandals, mocked me for listening to what she called “La-la music”, I would not be deterred.
“Did you know he scored sixteen number one records and had sixty-nine top ten hits?” I challenged her. I’d scavenged that information from the Encyclopedia Britannica. “That’s more than Elvis and The Beatles.”
“Who cares?” She said. “Nobody listens to them anymore either.”
Glenn Miller’s music was ubiquitous throughout the World War II era, which is also the era in which Savage Island, my new novel debuting at the end of September, takes place. I guess that’s no accident. I return to that time again and again in my fiction. It’s my go-to, the place where all of my ideas are somehow born.
There was one song of Miller’s in particular that I couldn’t get out of my mind as I was writing this fantasy-inspired wartime romance, the first in an epic new series that not only spans the globe, but takes place over a period of some six thousand years. And it wasn’t In the Mood or Chattanooga Choo Choo -both of which blasted out of dance halls coast to coast during that time, urging everyone to tap their toes and forget about the war for awhile. No, for this fan girl of the 1930s and 40s, the song that inspired the deepest nostalgia and had me up late into the night writing love scenes filled with longing and punctuated by first times was Moonlight Serenade. Miller’s most romantic melody, it has a slow groove that compels you to wrap your arms around your lover and sway. There’s a note of sadness and mystery to the tune, too, because like any great wartime love song, it doesn’t just celebrate the moment…it also hints at goodbye.
And there’s something else that it does, using its advantage almost unfairly. Giving us a thrill and chill that seeps its way into our consciousness like a cool mist on a waterfront.
It offers the moon. Literally, figuratively, transcandentally.
If jazz was the music of an era — fresh and new, dancing tip-toed with the brazen singularity of a dandy, the moon is, was, and ever shall be the poetic figure of eternity. It promises so much, showing us mere mortals the closest thing there is to God’s face. It’s a serene and sublime fixture in a turbulent universe — one that has looked down on us since before the birth of the first man, and will stay with us until the last one takes his final breath.
There’s a reason we make wishes as we stand under her bold, blue light.
Miller had to have had this in mind when he was writing Moonlight Serenade. With his classic ambition, he was aiming at creating something that was for the then and now, but strived to hang around a lot longer than that. It’s a piece of his imagination that he wanted to linger after the war had ended and everyone had gone home. That might haunt subsequent generations the way Miller’s sudden disappearance and presumed death haunted the last months of that long and brutal war.
Every artist understands such an aspiration. The need for our work to cast a shadow, leave an echo and an ache. Even self-admitted commercially minded artists like Glenn Miller, who once said, “By giving the public a rich and full melody, distinctly arranged and well played, all the time creating new tone colors and patterns, I feel we have a better chance of being successful.”
But if it was just success he was after, going for the moon, so to speak, he would have never added an almost mystical, heartsick element to his lunar homage. He might have let the song remain sexy and simple, with the kind of mystery that might leave you wondering what color garter a lady wears under her skirt, but not what sacred marvels make up her soul.
Perhaps in part because of Miller’s influence, my childhood memories of sitting on a shag carpet and listening to Moonlight Serenade, I’ve often used the moon as an inspiration in my fiction. Most recently, as the moon follows my lovers through history, through each life they’re born to, helping them find one another time and again. In Savage Island, the specter of our one and only satellite winks at these two unsuspecting hearts, offering glimpses of shadow memories — of all the times they’ve met, loved and lost each other. Of all the times they’ve basked in the lunar glow, standing hand to hand, leaning in for a kiss.
Moonlight Serenade helped me ground my characters in the present of the tale I was allowing to unfold. Illustrating what was at stake in 1944, and articulating the very themes of honor and purpose and struggle and devotion that had woven their destinies together forever.
Yet it was the actual moon that gave them to each other in the first place, in their first life many millennia before Glenn Miller’s music first crooned and crackled out of a ham radio. And it’s that very moon that can rip them away from one another again, just as easily.
Will walks onto the rock plank and stands on its brink, his silhouette stamped onto the face of the very moon that’s inked onto the back of his neck. His head is turned away from us and facing out towards the sea.
“ Ah’kwarah’a,” I call out to him. The words just spill out of me and I cup my hands over my mouth, my heart batting away in my chest.
“What’s that gobble-dee-goop?” Ku asks me.
Will cocks his head and I know he understands. Even if he can’t possibly. Even if I’ve never known the words I spoke and can’t imagine where they came from. I only know they were in my dream, and I wrote them down this morning as soon as I opened my eyes.
They mean, I was born for you.
- Savage Island, coming soon…
The island of Niue, 1944. On this remote island, deep in the South Pacific, about 1,500 miles from its closest neighbor, it hardly feels like a war is on. Angelie, a 17-year-old Australian girl, is waiting out the war on the island, where warm tropical winds blow through her hair almost as gently as native islander Will Tongahai’s eyes graze her body. But the arrival of an African archaeologist and his German consort unsettle the inhabitants of this tranquil isle, and Angelie begins to wonder if the war hasn’t finally reached their shores. As Angelie and Will are drawn to the suspicious pursuits of the new visitors — an ancient statue, a fantastic myth — a series of vivid dreams about deserts and long forgotten prophecies ensnares them. The lovers discover that their destiny, one forged thousands of years earlier, is not only bigger than their prospective future together, but makes a mere world war look like child’s play.