New York, 2016
Natalie Abbott offers answers for hurting listeners on her popular radio program. But she struggles to connect with her teenagers, with her daughter in an unhealthy relationship and her son uncommunicative and isolated. When one member of the family commits an unspeakable act, Natalie is forced to uncover who she truly is under the façade of her radio persona.
New York, 1776
Mercy Howard is shocked when her fiancé, Nathan Hale, is arrested and hanged as a spy. When she’s asked to join the revolutionary spy ring in Manhattan, she sees an opportunity to avenge Nathan’s death. But keeping her true loyalties hidden grows increasingly harder as the charming Major John Andre of the King’s Army becomes more to her than a target for intelligence.
Mercy’s journals comfort Natalie from across the centuries as both women struggle with their own secrets and shame, wondering how deep God’s mercy extends.
The Hidden Side is the first book I have read by author Heidi Chiavaroli, and I am giving this a five star review not because I loved it. I did not, in fact this story was a very hard read for me but the author pulled me into her story even when I didn’t want to go. The topics discussed in this novel are basically from the front page news. We have all read about them, know about them, and ultimately our country has been changed by them. This is a gritty, heart tugging story of three women and their lives that will forever be changed.
This is a time slip novel, the contemporary story is told from the views points of a mother and daughter: Natalie and Maelynn. The historical story takes place during the Revolutionary War surrounded by facts and told to us from the viewpoint of a young woman by the name of Mercy. As the contemporary story was being told, and as harsh as it was, I naively thought that the historical story would be more of an escape. However, that was not the case and by the time I closed the book, both stories had touched me more than I wanted and more than a book has in a long time.
I think I have made my point that this is a tough, heartbreaking story to read. It mirrors too much of real life, and I like to escape into my reading and I like happy endings. However, this book has given me much food for thought and to look at this broken world with a little bit more compassion. Author Chiavaroli tells this story in a compelling and compassionate way and I don’t know how she did it. This story will stick with me for a long, long time.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Tyndale House Publishers. I was not required to post a positive review and all views and opinions are my own.
About the Author:
Heidi Chiavaroli began writing eleven years ago, just after Jesus had grabbed hold of her heart. She used her two small boys’ nap times to pursue what she thought at the time was a foolish dream. Despite a long road to publication, she hasn’t stopped writing since! Heidi won the 2014 ACFW Genesis contest in the historical category. Her debut novel, Freedom’s Ring, was a 4½-star Romantic Times Top Pick and a Booklist Top Ten Romance Debut. Heidi loves exploring places that whisper of historical secrets, especially with her family. She loves running, hiking, baking, and dates with her high-school sweetheart and husband of fourteen years. Heidi makes her home in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and Howie, her standard poodle. Visit her online at heidichiavaroli.com.
1. What inspired you to write The Hidden Side?
My ideas usually begin with research. I was searching for a true-to-life historical figure from the American Revolution who could inspire a new story when I stumbled upon Agent 355, a woman who played an important part in General George Washington’s most successful spy ring, a woman whose identity we still don’t know for certain. That was enough to get my imagination going! Before long, I had a solid historical story down—a story about a woman seeking to redeem the wrong done to her fiancé, infamous spy Nathan Hale. A story about a woman hiding behind a facade that could not only ruin every relationship she has, but could put her life in peril as well. A story about a woman who finds herself caring for a man she must deceive.
The contemporary story didn’t come so easily. I was brainstorming with my friend and fellow author Melissa Jagears when we remembered a recent news story about a man who had committed a terrible crime and an interview with a relative who raised him, who was just as shocked as the rest of the country over what her kin had done. Before long (and with additional help from my extraordinary editor, agent, and critique partner) we had the story of Natalie, a mother and radio host of a popular Christian morning show— whose son had committed an unspeakable crime. This woman would go through grief, but she would also struggle with moving on, with the impulse to hide behind her radio personality, and with finding her identity not in her son’s deeds but in Christ. Through her attempt to find healing, she turns to the journal her son gave her on the eve of his crime, a journal that tells the story of another woman, centuries earlier, who also felt the need to hide behind a false persona.
2. How do you expect this story to resonate with your audience?
Although most of us haven’t gone through something as horrific as Natalie, Maelynn, and Mercy, we have probably all struggled with the different masks we find ourselves wearing. We struggle to discover our “true” selves. How often does who we truly are fail to translate into who we walk around being?
Natalie hides from the shame caused by her son’s actions behind a radio name. Filled with grief, she convinces herself she will hurt fewer people if she lives behind this facade. Her daughter, Maelynn, is a sixteen-year-old who struggles with fitting in with her peers. When her twin brother commits his unspeakable crime, she begins to realize how living untruth to please others has hurt not only her brother, but her entire family and community. And Mercy, like Natalie, feels she is fighting for a good cause, but when her noble intentions collide with those she cares for, she finds herself wondering if living untruth can ever produce something good.
3. Can you tell us about the historical research that went into writing this novel? Did you learn anything new that surprised you?
Research is always one of my favorite parts of writing a novel. After I read everything I could on the Culper Spy Ring, we visited the village of Setauket on Long Island. This was the hometown of real historical people who were part of the ring—Abraham Woodhull, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, and Anna Smith Strong. These were ordinary people who dealt with suppression and, through the prompting of George Washington, used the trust they already held for one another to conduct a covert group that would smuggle information out of British-occupied Manhattan. As Mercy came alive in my mind, it was wonderful to visit the very places she would have grown up, the places she walked and lived and worshipped and worked. Love that stuff!
I think the most fascinating fact I learned was how adamant the members of the spy ring were about keeping their secret—most of them until death. With the exception of the brazen Caleb Brewster, the members of the Culper Spy Ring were extremely hesitant to talk of the role they played in their country’s freedom, even years after it happened. In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Robert Townsend’s role in the ring came to light. That’s how scared they were. That’s how ashamed many of them felt living beneath false motives. And yet they persevered for what they considered to be the greater good.
4. What role does faith play in the story?
Natalie is a woman with all the answers . . . for everyone else. She is revered as a woman of faith. But when her family and community collapse beneath the actions of her son, she doubts everything. Her true self is revealed, and it’s not pretty. (Hardship has a way of doing that to us!)
For many of us, it’s easy to put our confidence in our works—in the pretense that we’re actually pretty good people. But you know what? We’re a lot worse off than we fool ourselves into thinking. That’s the bad news. But hold your breath, because the good news is close behind it—we’re also WAY more loved than we know.
Like Natalie, we often busy ourselves trying to hide that unflattering person. We try to protect it, cover it, hope nobody really knows the depths of our messiness. But the gospel tells us that the real us—that one we’re so busy hiding—that’s the one God loves so much. That’s the one Jesus came to redeem.
5. What lessons or truths do you hope readers will take away from The Hidden Side?
That no matter what we try to conceal, even from ourselves, there is nothing that God can’t free us from. That the only place worth hiding is in Jesus. There, we don’t have to have it all together or pretend to be something we’re not. We don’t have to be afraid of rejection. He loves us perfectly and enough to do a good work in us—a real work that will draw us closer to Him and make us more like Him. That’s where our true identity resides.
6. As an author, what did you particularly enjoy about crafting this story?
When I started writing this story, I expected to write in two viewpoints—Natalie, my contemporary character, and Mercy, my historical character. But as I began the story, another character, sixteen-year-old Maelynn, begged to have her story told, and even though I hadn’t planned for her, I couldn’t ignore her either.
I’ve never written in the point of view of a contemporary teenager and I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Sure, there was a lot to tackle in this book with Maelynn, but she came alive to me in a very unique way. I absolutely felt her. I was her. Though I craft many characters, they don’t all speak to me in the same way. To me, Maelynn’s character was especially powerful.
7. This novel explores some devastating events and topics—a school shooting, the loss of loved ones, and division within and among families. Why did you choose to tackle these difficult issues?
After I brainstormed with a couple of my author friends and my agent and editor, I saw the story before me, but absolutely balked at the idea of writing it. This was difficult stuff. Didn’t my readers see enough of the difficult when they turned on the news? Wasn’t it my job to give them an escape from the harsh realities of life?
Honestly, I didn’t wrestle with this for long. Since I first began pursuing publication, I knew my stories would not be the sweet, easy ones. There is darkness in this world, and as a writer who longs to bring truth into it, I can’t in good conscience ignore the darkness. I can, however, bring hope into it.
The funny thing about hope and good news is that it shines more brightly in the darkness. So when I write about a bombing or a historical war, when I write about the unspeakable actions of a family member or a heart torn apart by addiction and suffering, in part, it is what I relate to. It’s where despair tends to trip me up in this messy, broken world.
BUT there is hope. And that is where I choose to cling, and it is this message that burns in my heart to bring forth to my readers.
8. The Hidden Side features three main characters: Natalie and Maelynn Abbott of modern-day New York and Mercy Howard of colonial New York. Which character did you personally relate to the most? Which character surprised you the most?
Writing Natalie’s character made me an emotional wreck. I think this was because I could relate to her so well. And though she goes through something no mother should ever have to go through, my mother’s heart was ripped apart when writing her character. I can imagine what it’s like to have a troubled son, a prodigal son. I know what it’s like for a child to dread going to school because of bullying issues. I also know what it’s like to be held to a certain standard and to not measure up. In these ways, I could very much relate to Natalie.
Maelynn was definitely the character that surprised me most. When I began writing, I didn’t know her place in the story, but as it progressed, she became central to it. She surprised me not only with her honesty, but how she grew throughout the story as well.
9. Your novel gives readers permission to have questions about their faith. Why do you think this is important?
I think if we’re honest, we all struggle with doubts and questions once in a while. It’s that in-between dilemma again—that place between the now and the will-be promise that God has given us, that place where our real selves are hidden with Him.
If we ignore our questions and doubts, we’re not being real with ourselves or with God. And so often, in my experience, doubt has been a threshold to a deepened faith. Our God doesn’t need a fake faith. He’s the Almighty, the Creator of all things. He can handle our doubts and questions. Really. And I absolutely believe He will use them to strengthen us as He did for Thomas, Abraham, and many others in Scripture.
10. Forgiveness and reconciliation can be difficult topics, and you include them as core themes of the novel. What do you hope your reader will learn from this?
Forgiveness is something I so often look at on the surface and think, No big deal, easy peasy. Then, when it comes time to put it into practice (when someone has really and truly hurt me) . . . well, not so easy. And what about when we have to forgive someone who isn’t even sorry for what they’ve done?
My characters all face these dilemmas. What they are asked to forgive is monumental. I can hardly begin to fathom it, but I think, in some ways, as I walked this journey with them, they helped me better understand the real meaning of mercy, and the extent of grace that Jesus has given us.
11. What led you to choose the title The Hidden Side?
The working title for this manuscript was Hidden Mercy. I’m so thankful for my amazing editors at Tyndale who brainstormed the stronger title of The Hidden Side. I think it really conveys the struggle of both contemporary and historical characters, as well as the fact that there is a hidden side of God’s Kingdom as well—one we can’t see fully right now, but one that is nevertheless real and at work in our lives.
12. What are some future projects you’re working on?
Right now, I’m finishing up some research for my third book with Tyndale, scheduled to release in 2020. We’ll be back in revolutionary and contemporary Boston for that, so I’m excited!
I’m also busy preparing some speaking engagements, as well as revising another timeslip story set to release next year. A lot to work on, but I’m loving every minute of it!