The idea for “The Amazon Heist” came to Kimberly Grimes in the middle of the night, in the middle of the rainforest, in Peru. Grimes is the co-owner, with her husband, Marco Hernandez, of Made By Hand, the fair-trade store in York Beach Mall in South Bethany. This year marks the store’s 20th anniversary.
“It was our last evening there after 10 years of bringing undergraduate students for their January study-abroad semester,” said Grimes, who until recently also taught anthropology at the University of Delaware.
“Marco and I were sitting outside our palm-thatched hut in the hum of darkness, quietly chatting. I mentioned my regret that I hadn’t written my own detailed field notes to show the changes we had witnessed. But, as their professor, I was too busy helping the students conduct their own research to think about mine.”
“We went to bed, and a couple of hours later I woke up, immediately awake, having dreamt the whole outline for my book! I sat with my flashlight tucked under my chin and wrote it all down. I even heard the English voices of my favorite actors, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, take on the characters of the two sisters who are tourists that comprise a big part of the plot. Crazy as it sounds, it was like they were channeling the story to me!”
“The Amazon Heist” is Grimes’ first work of fiction. Although the actual adventure story about a diamond mine is made up, the description of the changing ecosystem is real, the people are ethnographically true, and the relationship between the professor and her husband in the book is semi-autobiographical. (Although it was across a crowded plaza in Guadalajara, Mexico, not Oaxaca, where the real-life Kimberly and Marco met and fell in love at first sight!)
Indeed, it was Hernandez who selected the name Bob Marquez to be “his” character. Roberto Marquez is Hernandez’s favorite Andean musician.
“I had only written non-fiction before,” said Grimes. “Using fiction, I thought I could bring my love and knowledge of the Amazon and its peoples to a wider audience. They might learn something while still being entertained by the story.”
Grimes’ interest in anthropology started in her seventh-grade social studies class. She was fortunate enough to have one of those few wonderful teachers capable of making a lifelong impact.
“My class project was about indigenous people living in Northwest Canada and Alaska. I got hooked learning about their culture, symbols and way of life. I knew then that I wanted to study anthropology in college and become a teacher, like my father and both my grandparents.”
Grimes got her bachelor’s degree at Wake Forrest, her master’s at the University of South Carolina and her doctorate at the University of Arizona, known to be a power house of anthropology in the United States.
Grimes and Hernandez married while she was still studying in Arizona, and that was where they decided to become involved in the fair-trade movement. They also realized that, in Arizona, neither of them had local family, and close family connections were vital to them both.
“We decided to move to Fenwick Island, where much of my family resides and where I spent every summer as a child. Then we could spend our vacation time with Marco’s family in Mexico,” said Grimes.
By coincidence, the York Beach Mall that her grandfather had built decades earlier, using cinderblocks to keep it from blowing away in storms, was being remodeled. Grimes and her sister Rebecca Mais took the two southern-most storefronts and, since 1996, Made By Hand and McCabe’s Gourmet Market have stood side by side. One delights residents and tourists with unusual, colorful and worthy gifts and clothing, and the other provides tasty treats and gourmet sandwiches.
Grimes noted that she could not help promoting the concept of fair trade in “The Amazon Heist.” So, when one of the students explains to the sisters that they are learning about international trade, it is followed by an example of why fair trade is needed. The professor berates a tourist for shamelessly trying to undercut the price of an already reasonable handwoven basket.
“It happens all the time,” said Grimes. “These people are so poor and their work is amazing, yet some wealthy tourists don’t think about the amount of time, skill and expertise used to create their handicrafts and offer them insulting prices. It’s just not fair.”
And baskets are one of the ways that Grimes weaves fact with fiction in her novel. In one corner of Made By Hand is a display of the very baskets she references in the book, along with a photo of the actual women artisans whose lives she mentions in telling her story.
“The Amazon Heist” is a good read. It combines an adventure story that ends with an unexpected twist, characters with whom one connects and a setting that makes one yearn to visit. Each chapter begins with a simple drawing elegantly depicting an aspect of Amazon life. For those in the area who have been delighted by Marco Hernandez’s musicianship, we now learn he is also a talented artist.
As always, Grimes is first an anthropologist and second a teacher. In her writing, she entertains, teaches and influences thinking about the global impact of the man-made, life-endangering changes being inflicted on the region. She will be signing her book and answering questions at the Fair Trade Day celebration at Made By Hand on Saturday, May 14.
“The Amazon Heist” is available for purchase at Made By Hand, Bethany Beach Books, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle formats) and Apple’s iBooks store.