Bristol resident Elizabeth Splaine's "Steel Butterflies" will be released in April. It is based on Splaine’s friendship with an elderly woman who served as a real-life OSS operative during WWII.
Bristol resident Elizabeth Splaine has had not just one, but three interesting and successful careers. After spending more than a decade working in the healthcare field, she became a professional opera singer and voice teacher, something she still does — when she is not working as a novelist.
To hear Splaine tell it, these varied careers just sort of seamlessly and unintentionally followed each other. She began writing at a time when she had become tired of performing onstage with the opera. Brushing her teeth one day, she dropped the cap from the toothpaste on the floor, and with her eyes still closed, bent over to pick it it up. “I thought about how challenging it would to be blind, and at that moment, a character, Julian Stryker, a blind child psychologist in Boston, popped into my head,” she said. “I sat down and started typing. My husband came home, saw me and asked what I was doing. I told him ‘I think I’m writing a book.”
Splaine wrote the Dr. Julian Stryker series of “Blind” thrillers (Blind Order and Blind Knowledge), as well as Devil’s Grace, which won a writing competition. Her next book, Swan Song, an historical fiction novel, was chosen by independentbookreview.com as a “Top 35 Impressive Indie Press Book of 2021.” She is currently rewriting her first book, and is hoping to publish that in the near future.
Her latest, Steel Butterflies, will be released in April. It’s based on Splaine’s friendship with an elderly woman who served as a real-life OSS operative during WWII. “She gave me permission to write her story,” Splaine said. “She was 92 years old when I started interviewing her.” Her subject backed out after a couple of sessions, suggesting that if she shared her story she could be hurt, a decision Splaine honored.
When the idea of Steel Butterflies became to take shape, Splaine decided she wanted to model one of the characters after her friend, who was still alive at the time. She read her some excerpts from an early draft, and the woman consented, becoming the character of Madame Celeste DeWit in the novel (not her real name.)
Based on true events, Steel Butterflies is the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage girl and a former WWII spy. Set in Barrington (where Splaine lived before her move to Bristol), Ebony Dobbs is a biracial teen with typical teen problems and a deep secret, who accompanies her mother on a home health visit, meeting Madame Celeste DeWit, a 97-year-old with a closet full of skeletons from WWII. As Ebony learns the truth about Madame’s wartime exploits, she comes to terms with her own past, realizing she and Madame share more than they differ. When Ebony’s best friend Connor uncovers information that implicates Madame’s estate manager in a plot to steal the old woman’s fortune, the teenagers launch a campaign to protect her, even as Madame’s past barrels into the present, threatening to destroy everything in its path.
Ebony’s race is an important part of the story and coming of age in a predominantly white community informs her character development throughout the book. “That is the way I saw her from the minute she came into my mind,” said Splaine.
Splaine incorporates her past careers into her writing: medicine and opera always have a role. “Music is incredibly important to me,” she said. “It’s part of who I am.” Her characters are richly developed and always multi-dimensional. “I love themes of choice, how one person can be so many things and circumstances can impact that character,” she said. There’s a little bit of the author in the Ebony character too. “We are both discerning with our friendships,” Splaine said. “And like Ebony, I have spent some time wondering ‘Am I enough?’ What does that even mean? Does it change over time? As we all go on our journeys, when do we decide we are enough?”
Steel Butterflies, at its heart, is about character: a story of strong women, young and old, with stories to tell, set against a backdrop that highlights themes of inclusion, empathy and compassion. “I like presenting situations where there is a real moral dilemma and the reader wonders ‘what would I do?’ That’s what I hope my books do.”