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Foodie Lit
Roberta Carr's Clara's Way

Against the background of building the Panama Canal, is the awakening of Clara Tyler. Clara, trained as a nurse, receives an emergency request from her brother in December 1904. Samuel is critically ill from his work as an engineer working on the Panama Canal. This year was the beginning of the US effort to build the Canal after France withdrew after its failed efforts. Unfortunately, Clara arrives too late to help her brother and then becomes ill herself. After her recovery, Clara has an epiphany, which strengthens her resolve to live her life the way she wants. She decides to stay at the Canal and dedicate herself to helping its workers as her brother Samuel had done. The plot details the emergence of Clara as a strong, independent and iconoclastic woman-- politically, professionally and romantically.

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The politics of the building of the Panama Canal caused deaths, disasters and unnecessary hardships. While corrosive politics have been part of humankind since the beginning of “civilization,” author Roberta Carr told me, “I wanted to show how one person can make a difference despite the odds.” Through Clara’s eyes, we see the poverty and disease of the Canal’s workers, their lack of rights, and adding to their misery, the indifference from many in charge


The novel is an interesting mixture of imaginary and historical people. The main character Clara is the author’s creation but many of the major characters are genuine, grounding the details in actual events.


The true life hero of the Panama Canal was Dr. Gorgas fighting relentlessly with politicians over health issues. Working against ignorance and stiff opposition, Gorgas, and Clara in the novel, stopped the yellow fever and malaria epidemics, improved the lives of those who worked on the Canal and helped the Canal be completed. Roberta told me that much of the Canal’s politics involved reminds her of the politics in our Corona Virus pandemic.


Author Roberta Carr worked in health care and her husband is a neurologist. This background plus research makes the medical aspects of her writing very realistic. But that is not what inspired the novel. “Clara’s character is based on my husband’s aunt, Dora Carothers. Born in 1882, Dora grew up on a farm in Cutler, Ohio, the oldest of nine children. She chose career over marriage, serving as a Red Cross nurse in Europe during WW1. After the war, not only did she ride a patient circuit in Kentucky to care for the rural population, but she also paid for her sibling’s education. I wanted to showcase Dora’s intelligence, courage, generosity, and kindness through Clara’s choices.”


Parallel to Clara’s fight against disease is her battle for equal rights as a woman. She struggles within her family against the rule of her father, in the medical and political world against the authority of doctors and government leaders, and in world of love, against prevailing standards. Roberta shared, “When Clara was coming of age, women, abused and otherwise, simply endured life, having no power. They couldn’t vote, own land, and had no legal rights to their children. They were expected to marry and raise a family, remaining little more than their husband’s property.”  Clara rebels against her era’s rules about choices in career, marriage and love. The work for equal rights was a battle of that era: the right to vote was still 15 years away and much effort was need for women to legally be supported to make choices that we now have.


I would like to see these characters again—they are strong and on their own paths.


Black Beans and Rice with Fried Plantains and Tropical Fruit Salad were on Clara’s menu. Fabulous taste that is good for the summer and all year round.

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