Tosca Lee teams up for a gripping tale of heroism and sacrifice

Tosca Lee

by Timothy Pike

Award-winning thriller author Tosca Lee is our cover author this month, and we’re discussing her latest release: The Long March Home, a historical fiction novel she co-wrote with bestselling author Marcus Brotherton. For more about Tosca, check out my last interview with her.

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Tosca and her co-author:

Can you please provide a brief summary of your novel, The Long March Home?

Inspired by true stories, The Long March Home is a gripping coming-of-age tale of friendship, sacrifice, and the power of unrelenting hope.

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Jimmy Propfield joins the Army for two reasons: to get out of Mobile, Alabama, with his best friends Hank and Billy and to forget his high school sweetheart, Claire. Life in the Philippines seems like paradise—until the morning of December 8, 1941, when news comes from Manila: Imperial Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor. Within hours, the teenage friends are plunged into war as enemy warplanes attack Luzon, beginning a battle for control of the Pacific theater that will culminate with a last stand on the Bataan Peninsula and end with the largest surrender of American troops in history. What follows will become known as one of the worst atrocities in modern warfare: the Bataan Death March. With no hope of rescue, the three friends vow to make it back home together. But the ordeal is only the beginning of their nearly four-year fight to survive.

The Long March Home is set against the backdrop of the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines. When did you first learn about the Bataan Death March, and why did you decide to write a novel about this era?

TOSCA: Honestly—and this was one big reason I wanted to do this book—I had not heard about the Defenders of Bataan or this harrowing chapter in World War II history until Marcus approached me with the idea of working together on this project.

What a sobering education researching this story has been and what an honor it is to share it with others who, like me, may not be aware of it or its heroes.

The Long March Home is the story of three friends, Jimmy “Propper” Propfield, Billy Crockett, and Hank Wright. Can you provide some background information on each of these young men?

Jimmy is our main character. He’s a good kid, a pastor’s kid, a kid who always tries to do the right thing. He and Claire, Billy’s older sister, have been companions practically since birth, as their mothers are best friends.

Billy, who is a couple years younger than Jimmy, is the happy-go-lucky sidekick.

We wanted to make things as factual as possible, really immersing readers in the locations, events, and characters’ lives.

Hank, the oldest of the boys, is a natural leader, a bad boy, and the kind of kid others want to be around. The only problem is, Hank’s had a soft spot for Claire since meeting her in third grade … and Claire is the only girl Jimmy’s ever loved.

Jimmy, Billy, and Hank all make sacrifices at different times in order to help each other and in an effort to survive the war. Without giving away any spoilers, can you mention some of the sacrifices they have to make?

The entire story is about sacrifice on many levels. For Jimmy, it’s the sacrifice of a dream future that doesn’t seem meant to be. For Billy, it’s the sacrifice of what could have been a college career as a track star. For Hank, it’s about claiming—and laying down—his own chance to shine after living so long in the spotlight of his older brother, Cowboy. For all three of them, it’s about doing whatever it takes to keep their friends alive.

At one point, there is a big misunderstanding between Jimmy and Hank that nearly destroys their friendship. What event or events help mend their relationship?

Ultimately, the willingness of one of them to set aside pride and old wounds is what brings them back together in the face of ongoing adversity and their uncertain survival.

Jimmy, Billy, and Hank are determined to survive the unthinkable: “If we have to run—if we have to swim off this island—we’re gettin’ through this. The three of us—all home alive.” Can you provide a couple of examples of how the friends band together in an effort to survive the war?

One of the working titles of the book for a few months during the writing process was All Home Alive. That’s the boys’ goal from the moment they begin to understand what dire straits they’re in.

From the sharing of provisions to their familiar banter in an effort to buoy spirits during the grueling miles of the Death March, the three friends make a constant effort to stay together and protect one another.

At Camp O’Donnell, Jimmy is assigned a work task that strips away any pride he may have had. Can you tell readers about his duty and what lessons we can learn when we are at the lowest points in our lives?

At Camp O’Donnell, Jimmy is assigned to the burial detail. His job is to dig graves in the mud for the constant stream of dead soldiers in the blistering heat. It’s a work detail few survive for long, and it makes him unsanitary to be around, especially as he’s unable to bathe or wash the stink of death or the decaying matter from himself. How he comes through that detail becomes a powerful metaphor for the need to surrender to the help of others and the kind of salvation we cannot achieve ourselves.

Jimmy and his father have a strained relationship, which is part of the reason Jimmy chooses to join the war. Can you provide a hint of what else leads to Jimmy’s decision?

Jimmy has long been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he’s chafed for years beneath his father’s unyielding sense of right and wrong and Jimmy’s seeming lack of freedom to choose his own path. For Jimmy, choosing to enlist is his way out from under his father’s oppressive presence in his life.

Religion and legalism are an underlying theme within Jimmy’s story in particular. How does Jimmy fight against legalism and in the end come to terms with his own spiritual walk?

Jimmy is raised believing that life is black and white, but all of that quickly goes awry in the fog of war.

In addition to the three friends, you also introduce readers to Billy Crockett’s sister Claire, who plays a big part in The Long March Home. Please provide a hint of how her character impacts all of the friends.

Claire is the voice of reason and duty, but she’s also a fun and whimsical presence in the boys’ lives—the one who forces Jimmy to learn to dance, who scolds the boys when they act out, and then who leaps into their favorite swimming hole. She’s the only girl Jimmy’s ever loved but whom Hank will do anything for. She represents home and all that is good and familiar from their childhood.

The Long March Home includes graphic depictions of war and all the grittiness and horror that come with it. What type of research was required to accurately portray the details surrounding the war?

We wanted to make things as factual as possible, really immersing readers in the locations, events, and characters’ lives.

It was pure selfishness. I wanted to know more about these characters and their lives before, what made them the friends they were, and why they had to survive.

Ultimately, this book is about heroes, empathy, and healing—all things that are needed in big supply these days.

Delving into the four friends’ young lives together in Alabama and then in the Philippines as they are thrust into a desperate, months-long war—not only against the Japanese but also against hunger, disease, and dwindling hope of reinforcements—was fascinating to research, nostalgic, poignant, and finally very sobering to write.

The Long March Home is a dual-time novel. Can you expand on how these two timelines intersect?

The dual timeline is very important to this story. It provides the history of the four friends growing up and sets the stage for their circumstances at the time when the boys enlist in the Army. It also provides a much-needed respite for the reader from the horrors of war as the boys are engaged in fighting and later in their bid for survival as POWs.

What underlying themes can be found within The Long March Home?

Overtly, it’s a story of the power of friendship set against a backdrop of sacrifice. What would you do for the friends you love the most? Then, it also points to the complex morality of life. We often think only in black and white, right or wrong. But life hands us situations in which we are pushed far beyond our comfort zones. This book asks, would you take one life to save another?

The Long March Home is a fictional story, but it is based on true events. Can you point out some of the events that actually took place during this time?

All the large-scale events, backdrops, and settings in this story are true. Clark Field was bombed within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, launching the Philippines into war in the Japanese bid to control the Pacific theater. The lack of supplies and the supply runs that the boys made to Port Area for food and ammunition are all documented in survivor accounts. The dysentery, malaria, and hunger portrayed in the book were widespread. The withdrawal of ships and the soldiers’ feelings of abandonment, the largest surrender of American troops in April 1942, and the subsequent horrors of the Death March and life in prison camps like O’Donnell and others mentioned in the book are all unfortunately true. The bombing of the Japanese “hell ships” is also true. Jimmy, Billy, and Hank’s experiences stealing food to survive, the terrible conditions of the train to Capas, the tortures they endured as POWs, and their work details in the Philippines and in Japan are all knit from survivor accounts. The female guerilla, Felipa Culala, who appears in our story is a real historical figure.

The Bataan Memorial Death March has been organized to commemorate the lives that were lost during that time. When did this memorial march first begin, what is involved in the march, and where does it take place?

The Bataan Memorial Death March takes place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico—a state deeply affected by the loss of life in the Philippines during World War II. Of the approximately ten thousand lives lost on the Bataan Death March, nine thousand of them were Filipino. Nearly ten thousand participants take part in the memorial march every year.

What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Long March Home?

An engrossing and inspiring story. Beyond that, insight into an often untaught chapter of World War II history and its heroes and an increased gratefulness for their sacrifice. Today’s generations must remember that freedom isn’t free. Past generations have given much so that we can live for what matters.

Ultimately, this book is about heroes, empathy, and healing—all things that are needed in big supply these days.

Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times–bestselling author of The Line Between, The Progeny, and Firstborn. She is the recipient of two International Book Awards, Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion, ECPA Book of the Year in Fiction, and the Nebraska Book Award. In addition to the New York Times, her books have appeared on the IndieBound bestseller list, and Library Journal’s “Best Of” lists. Tosca received her B.A. from Smith College and lives in Nebraska with her husband, three of four children still at home, and her 160-lb. German Shepherd, Timber.

Visit Tosca at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

You can also find Tosca on Goodreads, BookBub, and Amazon.

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