Cindy Thomson is the author of seven books, including her newest novel, Sofia’s Tune, the third book in her Ellis Island series. She also writes genealogy articles for Internet Genealogy and Your Genealogy Today magazines, and short stories for Clubhouse Magazine.
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O. Henry in Sofia’s Tune
by Cindy Thomson
As I was writing a scene in Sofia’s Tune, I needed my character Antonio, and his dog Luigi, to be in a café/pub in New York City in the area of what would later be called Time’s Square. Longacre Square, as it was referred to then, was the area where folks like Antonio—musicians looking for work—hung out, along with other creative people like actors, artists, and writers. I made an interesting discovery while researching. O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter, was a part of this crowd. I wrote a scene where my character meets the famous writer. But what about that café I needed?
The answer turned out to be Healy’s Café, today known as Pete’s Tavern. O. Henry lived nearby on Irving Place. O. Henry often visited Healy’s. Legend says he penned The Gift of the Magi while sitting in a booth there. The café sits on a corner with the kind of windows I needed my character to sit near in order to keep an eye on his dog outside.
Sofia’s Tune takes place in 1903. In 1902 O. Henry was released from prison. If you live in the Columbus, Ohio, area—as I do—you may know that he served a sentence in the state penitentiary here. After being released, he went to New York City where he lived out the remainder of his life. The conviction was for bank embezzlement. Most people now believe it had been just poor management. He went to Honduras to escape, but returned because his wife was ill and dying. He was apprehended after she passed away and sent to Ohio for three years. Not all of this is explained in Sofia’s Tune, but it is hinted at. He doesn’t really care for Ohio, where Antonio wishes to go. So now you know the scoop!
Mr. Porter was not yet well known, but he was writing stories for newspapers and magazines at that time. He had just seven years left to live. I could easily imagine him offering advice to a younger man, warning him not to make the mistakes he had made. To embrace one’s chance for love before it was too late.
I enjoy placing real historical characters in my novels when they actually lived and worked in my characters’ world. In my first book in this series, Grace’s Pictures, I introduced both Augustus Sherman (Ellis Island photographer) and Jacob Riis (lecturer and author of the acclaimed book Where the Other Half Lives.) These real people had an impact on others while they lived, so it only made sense that they would influence the fictional characters I placed in that time and location.
According to this biography, O. Henry “…wrote in a dry, humorous style and, as in ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ frequently used coincidences and surprise endings to underline ironies.” This is how I tried to portray him in how he lived, a man who could well imagine what was coming and suggested others take notice.
If you’ve read Sofia’s Tune, or do so in the future, I’d love to hear what you thought of O. Henry’s brief—but important—appearance in the story.
In Sofia’s Tune, we meet Sofia Falcone, a young woman who has been living in New York only a short time when she is stunned to discover a family secret, one that soon sends her beloved mother into a mental institution. Scrambling to keep her job and care for her mother, Sofia is convinced confronting the past will heal all wounds, but her old world Italian family wants to keep the past in the past. During this time, she encounters Antonio, a Vaudeville pianist with a street-smart dog, seeking to discover why his father was mysteriously killed. Their crossed paths uncover a frightening underworld in Little Italy. Bringing the truth to light may cost Sofia’s mother’s sanity, Antonio’s career, and the livelihoods of countless immigrants. Change is on the horizon, but it may not bring what they expect.