Many families have their own lore and legends but Debbie Sands' family stories were particularly sensational, and she loved to hear them again and again as she grew up.
The family's favourite narratives focused on Therese, Sands' grandmother, who grew up on a tropical island under colonial rule and left for England with her soldier husband, only to live through two World Wars, get involved with the French resistance, and spend nearly a century careening through perilous and fascinating adventures, all while keeping her fierce loyalty, charm, and humour about her.
After years of hearing about Therese's feats, she decided to bring her grandmother's rollicking stories to readers in Tropical Rose (Crossfield Publishing), a fictionalized retelling of Therese's life. Filled with romance, adventure, and history, it's an immersive and exciting tale, fuelled by Sands' love and respect for her fascinating subject.
We're sharing an excerpt today, courtesy of Crossfield Publishing, in which we see the fictionalized Thérèse attempt to smuggle an injured friend through a German checkpoint in occupied France.
Excerpt from Tropical Rose by Debbie Sands:
Racine and Thérèse drove in silence through the streets of the city. People were hurrying between the little shops, trying to get their errands accomplished before curfew struck. German soldiers could be seen walking in groups of two, their guns held closely to their sides in case of any sign of trouble. Occasionally, they could be seen questioning a nervous-looking citizen, but nobody was arrested. Thérèse was eventually able to relax a little and hope that they would get away easily with the injured Gaston stashed away in the back of the truck.
They reached the city limits within a short time, and Racine started to rummage around in one of his pockets, the other hand firmly on the wheel.
“What are you looking for?” asked Thérèse.
“Our papers,” he replied shortly. Thérèse had given hers to Racine earlier for safekeeping. She worried for a moment that he might have misplaced them, but he suddenly pulled them out of his pocket and pushed them into her hand.
“Have a look at them. Familiarize yourself with the details.”
She looked over the papers, which were printed on thin white paper with rather runny blue ink. They were identified as “Monsieur Hector Albert of the village of Elbeuf, Normandy, farmer” and “Madame Florence Albert, citizen of Elbeuf, Normandy.” Thérèse smiled to herself. Interesting that the gentleman was identified as a farmer where his wife, who probably worked just as hard on the farm as her husband, was only recognized as being a citizen. Nonetheless, she hoped that the forged papers would hold up to the scrutiny of the German guards at the edge of the city.
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Racine rummaged in another pocket of his jacket and pulled out a revolver, which he laid on his lap. Thérèse stared at it with a queasy feeling. Racine looked over at her.
“We have to have it,” he explained, seeing her trepidation. “If they suspect us, we have to make a run for it.”
He hid it under his jacket, but close to his hand, then drove slowly up to the check stop at the city’s edge.
Thérèse could see the little booth with a German soldier stationed in it. Another one stood outside, his gun slung over his back. As they drove closer, she scrutinized their grim faces.
Racine rolled down the window, and the young soldier in the booth came out and thrust his hand out.
“Papieren,” he demanded.
Racine silently handed him the papers. The soldier looked them over, examining each of their faces as he read the appropriate paper.
“Do you have cargo in the truck?” he questioned Racine, in halting French.
“Was ist es?” When Racine didn’t respond immediately, he repeated in French, “What is it?”
“Fruits and vegetables left over from the market,” Racine replied.
“Also”, barked the young soldier. “Get out of the truck and open the back for me.”
“Why? I’ve already told you what’s inside,” countered Racine. Thérèse’s heart started to race.
“Just do as I say,” the soldier raised his voice, beckoning to his fellow guard, who started to walk towards the truck.
Looking back, Thérèse couldn’t really remember what transpired, it all happened so fast. Racine suddenly pointed the gun at the young German soldier, fired it, then stepped on the accelerator of the truck as heavily as he could and sped through the check stop.
Thérèse gasped in horror as she saw the first soldier fall to the ground, then his colleague come running towards them, gun aimed and shouting at them loudly,
Racine kept on driving, the wheels of the truck screeching around corners in the road at every turn. Thérèse felt as though she were outside of her body, terror pulsating through her. As she looked back, she could see the second soldier jump into a jeep and start it up, following them down the road, his gun aimed out the window.
He fired two or three shots at them, but they all missed. Next he leaned his hand on the horn of the jeep, but Racine continued driving. As frightened as she was, Thérèse couldn’t help but notice how calm and determined he looked. She felt hot tears come to her eyes and let out a little gasp of fear.
“Just keep quiet, chérie,” he urged her, grimly. “I’m going to try to get us out of this.”
She wondered whether he’d ever actually been in a situation like this before, and her racing mind spared a thought for poor Gaston, who was probably being bumped all over the place in the back of the rickety old truck and was wondering what was happening. She glanced back and saw the army jeep behind them in hot pursuit. She sent up a little prayer to Saint Mary to deliver them from this dire situation, then clenched her fists together and closed her eyes.
She heard Racine fire two shots at the jeep that continued to follow them closely. From what she could see in the rear-view mirror, the German soldier was gripping the wheel with stubborn determination. She prayed again that Racine would be able to outrun him in the old truck. If he caught up to them, Racine would have to be very quick with his gun before the soldier aimed his rifle at them.
They continued down the road, careering along and veering dangerously at every turn. She heard two more shots coming from the jeep, but once again the soldier missed his mark.
A few more minutes passed, and Thérèse suddenly realized with a sinking feeling that he seemed to be gaining on them.
“He’s getting closer!” she hissed at Racine, the feeling of dread once more possessing her.
He nodded, told her to grab the wheel, then started to turn in his seat, leaning further out the window.
“B - but . . . but . . . I’ve never driven before!” she stuttered.
“Never mind, just hold it straight for a minute,” he spat out, turning his attention to the jeep behind them. She obeyed him, although with mounting fear. She fervently wished now that she’d taken those driving lessons Emmett had offered her when they were first married!
Racine fired another shot with his pistol, and Thérèse heard a loud bang, followed by the screech of brakes.
“Got him!” pronounced Racine, a look of satisfaction crossing his face. He took the wheel back from her, and Thérèse looked back once again. She saw that the jeep was zigzagging all over the road, one of the front tires blown out, and the German soldier was trying desperately to keep it from going off the road.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” she gasped out. “You did it, Racine! You did it!”
She watched as the jeep slithered inevitably into the ditch, down the embankment and into the woods, finally crashing into a tree. There was no movement from within and she realized that Racine had probably killed or seriously injured the enemy soldier. He eased up his pressure on the accelerator and they slowed down gradually once again. She looked squarely at him.
“The Germans will be looking for us now,” she told him in a scared voice. “They’ll be wanting to capture a Resistance fighter who shot at two of their own, and his accomplice.”
“Yes,” Racine answered her grimly. “We’ll just have to detour around all of the small towns on our way to our rendezvous point and make sure that no enemy troops spot us.”
“Do you know the way around the towns?” she asked.
“I have a compass,” he replied. “But it will add time to our journey.”
“We should check on Gaston,” she pointed out. “All that twisting and turning in the back of the truck couldn’t have been good for his injuries.”
“Let me get us a little further away,” he told her. “Just in case our friend comes to and radios for help.”
She nodded and tried to calm herself with a few deep breaths while Racine continued down the narrow road, seemingly unaffected by what had just happened. She shot him a glance. She was realizing that he was one cool character and had to admire his quick thinking and ability to handle the situation.
Excerpt taken from Tropical Rose, a novel by Debbie Sands. Published by Crossfield Publishing. Copyright 2023 by Debbie Sands. Reprinted with permission.
Debbie Sands was born in London, England to scientific parents, but always preferred the arts, especially creative writing. At the age of 17, she moved with her family to Toronto and attended Trinity College, emerging with a degree in French and English. Being undecided on a profession, she became a bilingual secretary in a large corporation and met her future husband, Ed, not long after that. In 1980, they moved to his home province of Alberta, where they raised a family. She worked in many administrative jobs, and was involved in community theatre with her whole family. Debbie always wanted to write so, after the tragic loss of her second daughter, she wrote of the family’s experience with mental illness in A Moth to the Flame: Amy’s Struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder (2016). She thought she would try her hand at novel-writing and hopes readers enjoy the adventures of her character, who is loosely based on her grandmother.