For Lucia St. Clair Robson, writing historical fiction is a way to time travel. She maintains, “It’s a way to put yourself in another time and place.” Ironically, the prolific writer of 10 novels, including the New York Times bestseller “Ride the Wind” didn’t initially set out to be a writer. Born in Baltimore but raised in South Florida, in 1964 she accepted John F. Kennedy’s call for Americans to serve their country and the world by joining the Peace Corps.
After participating in language labs and other training in Berkeley, California, for three months, St. Clair Robson found herself heading to Caripito, Venezuela. “My family didn’t have a lot of money, so I grew up living on the same street in West Palm Beach. I saw the Peace Corps as a way to get paid to travel and an opportunity to meet new people and do some good.”
Soon after arriving in Caripito, St. Clair Robson became friends with some of the nuns in the area who were medical missionaries to needy people in the “barrios” (neighborhoods). “Outside of town there was an American colony, a gated community where all the people from the oil company lived. We all partied together there on the weekends,” she says, laughing. Her friendship with the local nuns — in particular, a nun named Sister Mercedes — precipitated a perilous adventure she’ll never forget … especially since she has a scar that serves as a constant reminder!
The dangerous incident began with St. Clair Robson agreeing to accompany Sister Mercedes on a trip up the Orinoco River to visit the Capuchin nuns. “We found a guy with a canoe and an outbound motor to take us up the river,” she recalls. Despite the obvious risks like piranhas, venomous snakes, or other predatory animals living under the canopy of the rainforest, the travelers set out on the journey far up the river to meet with the nuns who provided medical care to the indigenous Warao people. She describes the dense jungle along the Orinoco as “pretty primitive.”
After arriving at their destination, St. Clair Robson learned that outsiders were not permitted to stay in the convent, so she found a monastery nearby that allowed her to stay. She slept alone in a monk’s unoccupied room on a pallet. While there, St. Clair Robson became acquainted with a monk who called himself “Father Vaquero,” which translates to “Father Cowboy.” The monk was an amateur archeologist who wore a white robe and a cowboy hat and was eager to show the women a spot where he had been digging for ancient artifacts. It was yet another “once-in-a-lifetime chance” she couldn’t pass up.
After wielding machetes to cut through the thick foliage and tangled growth deep into the jungle, Father Vaquero showed the ladies the area he had recently unearthed. Before jumping into the five-foot-deep hole to help look for more pre-Columbian Indian objects, St. Clair Robson handed her machete to Sister Mercedes for safe-keeping. Focused on the thrill of finding relics as she jumped, and not on the sharp blade in close proximity, her arm gently grazed it causing an instant laceration. “The machetes in Venezuela were kept very sharp because they were used for everything,” says St. Clair Robson. As the gaping wound bled profusely, she was brought back to the convent where the nuns in the medical dispensary stopped the bleeding and applied a tight makeshift bandage. “I didn’t allow the nuns there to sew up my gash because the conditions were less than sterile, and I didn’t want it to get infected. Anything in Venezuela could get infected. Even mosquito bites could become infected easily,” she explains.
The excursion cut short, St. Clair Robson and Sister
Mercedes slogged their way back on the Orinoco by canoe so her wound could be properly treated at the oil company hospital. Thanks to a massive incision that required eight stitches, her arm forever bears a noticeable scar. Along with her “badge of courage” scar, St. Clair Robson says the brief archeological expedition wasn’t a total bust as she still has bowls and other clay items found by the river that the tide uncovered.
After her 22-month service in Venezuela, St. Clair Robson returned home. Once she was back in the States, a doctor offered to remove the scar.
“Of course,” she recalled, “I said no way! I told the doctor I’d be telling this story and showing my scar at cocktail parties for years to come!”
St. Clair Robson says she doesn’t go to cocktail parties very often anymore, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped imparting a good story. In fact, the award-winning author is currently working on her latest historical novel based on the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps initiated in 1855. Clearly her fascination with history coupled with years of beneficial experience being a public librarian helped make her the successful writer she is today. “My master’s degree in Library Science made me a good writer because I had the research part down,” she said. Plus, she says being a public librarian in Annapolis provided a valuable resource — she could put out requests for books from libraries all across the country while gathering research for her novels. Proof of her devotion to good old fashioned library research, St. Clair Robson has a vintage library card catalog cabinet in her home.
Lucia St. Clair’s ability to draw from history, as well as her own profound life experiences, to convey a story and characters that come to life on the page and captivate readers is remarkable. To find out more about local historical novelist Lucia St. Clair Robson, visit www.luciastclairrobson.com. (Editor’s note: That website is not working right now. Sorry.)
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