Tosca Lee was unfamiliar with the Bataan Death March.
That was before the Fremont area writer and New York Times Best Selling author was asked to work on a novel inspired by true events during World War II.
Five years ago, New York Times Best Selling author Marcus Brotherton asked Lee to partner with him in writing a book about the real-life march, which occurred when Japanese troops forcibly marched 60,000 Filipino and 10,000 American soldiers more than 60 miles — without food or water — to a prisoner of war camp.
Their fictional book called, “The Long March Home,” tells the story of three young friends from Alabama, who face unthinkable odds as they struggle to survive the deadly march and almost four horrific years in the camp.
Lee describes the tome as a story of friendship, survival, sacrifice and redemption.
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The book came out this month and already is receiving critical acclaim, most recently from Booklist, which named the novel on its Top 10 List of Historical Fiction for 2023. Both Library Journal and Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, with the latter stating: “This is a winner.”
“We’ve really been blessed with wonderful reviews and wonderful endorsements for this book,” Lee said.
The road from the book’s inception to its release was a long one.
Fifteen years ago, Brotherton was talking with Lt. Buck Compton, a commissioned officer with the legendary “Band of Brothers.” Brotherton remarked about the tough situation Compton experienced during the wintertime siege of Bastogne in Europe.
“Yeah, but at least I wasn’t fighting in the Pacific,” Compton said. “Man, those guys had it really rough.”
That thought stayed with Brotherton for years.
“I began to read up extensively on the era,” Brotherton said in a prepared statement.
Brotherton researched and wrote two nonfiction books, “Voices of the Pacific” with historian Adam Makos, and a biography of underage enlistee Joe Johnson, who fought on Bataan, called, “A Bright and Blinding Sun.”
He wanted to connect with fiction readers, too, and began working on the story that became “The Long March Home.”
Brotherton knew Lee, who’d already had endorsed his novel, “Feast for Thieves.” Brotherton said he’d read several of Lee’s novels and loved her work.
Lee, whose works have been praised as “deeply human” and “powerful,” has authored 12 novels including “The Line Between,” “The Progeny,” “The Legend of Sheba” and “Iscariot.”
In 2017, Brotherton called Lee about the book he’d started seven years earlier. The project intrigued her.
“I, honestly, was not familiar with the Bataan Death March. I didn’t know much about the Pacific Theater in World War II,” Lee said.
But Lee believes the story is important and agreed to co-write the book.
“He sent me his manuscript and his earlier drafts and he said, ‘Make it your own. Do what you want,’” she recalled. “I think that’s actually very rare. That’s a very generous, open-handed way of working with somebody and it shows a great deal of trust.”
Brotherton appreciates what Lee brought to the project.
“She came in with a fresh set of eyes and a heart wide open to learning about this era,” Brotherton said in the statement.
Lee began doing research, something for which she’s known.
“It’s kind of become part of my trademark at this point,” she said.
This research was different, however. Her other historical novels involved people — like Iscariot and Sheba — who lived 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.
By comparison, this was new history.
She began reading survivor accounts, many of which were compiled into a book called, “Death March,” by Donald Knox.
Lee was gripped by what she read.
“When you read these accounts, it seems impossible that anyone could have survived,” she said.
Lee learned about the fighting in the Philippines, the hunger and sickness soldiers faced, the largest surrender of American troops in history and subsequent horrors of the April 1942 march.
She started to work.
While Brotherton began his manuscript with the march, he said Lee convinced him the book needed chapters to tell readers who the soldiers were and what they were doing in Bataan.
Lee takes readers back to a simpler time, depicting how the brotherhood was created between three young men — Jimmy Propfield, Billy Crockett and Hank Wright — and their reasons for enlisting. For Jimmy, joining the U.S. Army was an opportunity to forget his high school sweetheart, Claire.
Lee describes the Philippines before the war.
“This was considered a plum posting, to be in the Philippines,” Lee said. “It was luxurious. There’s beautiful girls and the dollar goes really far. Manilla was called the ‘Pearl of the Orient.’”
Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and within hours, everything the Philippines was plunged into the war.
Lee would create a dual timeline taking readers through the war, interspersed with scenes of earlier times in the characters’ lives.
“This is the war story so having that reprieve to go back into the past to the childhood of these characters gives the readers an important break from the gritty details of the war. And readers need that,” she said.
Readers become immersed in the story, seeing it from Jimmy’s point of view.
Inspired by real events, the book includes a portion when soldiers climb on a tank and fire at enemy planes, as Clark Field is bombed on Dec. 8, 1941, which actually happened.
Fighting ensues and supplies dwindle. Filipino and American forces fight for more than four months before the surrender.
“These are soldiers who are already starving, sick, on the brink of collapse,” she said. “For those who survived the war, then they had to survive this 60-mile march, where if you stopped to try to drink water or gather food or to pick a mango, you got shot or bayoneted.”
Those who survived the march, began almost four years of P.O.W. life.
“For anyone to come home from the P.O.W. camps at the end of the war was a miracle,” she said. “What grips my heart about that is the survivors say the things that got them through — one of those was faith and the other was friendship. The soldiers, who had friends to help look out for them, were the ones who survived the longest.”
Five years passed after Lee was asked to be part of the book project. Lee said she had a tough time being creative during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The authors wrote and rewrote the book, recognizing one another’s strengths, maintaining a good sense of humor and respecting each other’s “non-negotiables — scenes they believed accomplished a specific purpose. Lee said both are big believers in the power of prayer.
“We shared a common goal that we wanted this to be an inspirational story of sacrifice, redemption and grace,” she said.
Lee hopes readers gain a new appreciation for the heroes of Bataan.
“It’s important for us to remember these too-often forgotten heroes of the Philippines,” Lee said. “One thing that stories like this do is — it reminds us of all that was given for us and for the freedoms that we enjoy today. Every book I write is meant to inspire, but this one is also meant to evoke gratitude.”
Brotherton has met death march survivors. Lee hasn’t, but noted: “This is the first book I’ve ever done that people have thanked me for writing, because they knew survivors of this event — their grandfather, their great-uncle, a neighbor — people know people who survived this.”
Readers can order copies from thelongmarchhomebook.com or any bookstore. She’ll have a book signing at 1 p.m. July 30 at The Bookworm store in Omaha.