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Interview with Joyce Yarrow

A man and a small child, standing on a railway line and holding hands, are silhouetted against a cloudy purple sky; cover of Joyce Yarrow's Stolen Lives

It has been several years since I first heard the phrase “Stalin’s niños.” In brief, back in the 1930s, when the forces of Francisco Franco were fighting with communists in Spain and Hitler had already taken power in Germany, almost three thousand children were evacuated by their left-wing parents to the Soviet Union. The children—relatively well treated by Soviet standards—remained in the USSR through World War II and beyond. By the time they returned to their home country, most were teenagers or young adults, thoroughly inculcated with (although not necessarily convinced by) communist ideology. Some chose not to return at all. These children, known in Spain as the Niños de Rusia, are a core element of Joyce Yarrow’s Stolen Lives, discussed in today’s written interview.

A core element, but not the only stolen lives explored here. Unlike the Niños de Rusia, sent away from home to protect them from enemy forces, many Spanish children of the 1930s–1950s never knew their mothers at all. The victorious Franco regime thought nothing of confiscating the babies of many poor, unwed, and/or politically “unreliable” women. The mothers, told that their infants had been stillborn, had no idea that the state had instead given the children to government loyalists. In this way, a dictator attempted to eliminate the opposition and keep himself in power. Read on to find out more.

An open book under a starburst of light, surrounded by symbols and letters from various alphabets; cover of Joyce Yarrow's Zahara and the Lost Books of Light

Stolen Lives is a sequel to your Zahara and the Lost Books of Light. Could you give us a brief introduction to that first novel?

Zahara and the Lost Books of Light, the first book in the Zahara series, has been aptly described by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as “A bibliophile mystery filled with magical realism that surprises the reader by transforming into a suspenseful international thriller.” The story is based on the premise that in 1498, thousands of books were rescued from being burned by the Spanish Inquisition and hidden away underground to this day.

The heroine of both books is Alienor Crespo. Who is she, and what does she want at this point in her life?

Alienor Crespo is a journalist who writes for the Seattle Courier and moves to Spain after obtaining her citizenship as a descendant of the Jews expelled in 1492. Her main goal is to get a scoop on a story so big it will advance her career into the international arena. This wish comes true, in both books, but the risks she takes as an investigative reporter are not well received by her lover, Mico Rosales, who wants her to settle down.

Alienor has a special gift. Tell us a bit about that, please.

Alienor has the gift of second sight, and during her Vijitas (visits) with her female ancestors, she experiences life directly through their eyes. As a child, she was terrified by these time-travel episodes, but over time she has come to accept her Vijitas and believe they have a purpose. In her own words: “I did not yet understand the purpose of my Vijitas but I was done with letting them make me feel like a misfit. On the contrary, I suspected they connected me to a long line of women who’d made the most of what they’d been given. Why should I be any different?”

Alienor’s family history in Spain goes back to the period known as the Convivencia. What was that, and how does it influence your series?

The Convivencia was a three-hundred-year period in Medieval Spain during which interfaith artistic collaboration between Jews, Muslims, and Christians was at its height. As a writer who is fond of “what if” scenarios, I wondered what might have been taken from the Convivencia if it had somehow managed to survive into the present day. I came up with the premise that a hidden library of books still exists in Spain, manuscripts penned during the Convivencia that were rescued from the fires of the Inquisition. It turned out to be a good source of conflict for my novels, since there are still plenty of fanatics who deny the Convivencia’s existence even as they try to block its path.

This novel’s main focus, however, is on children taken from their mothers at birth. These are the stolen lives of your title, and they come in two categories. The first group, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s, are known to historians like me as “Stalin’s niños,” or the Niños de Rusia. Your character Lea is one of them. What happened to her early in life?

Lea Benveniste started out as a “minor character” in Stolen Lives and ended up stealing the spotlight. At the age of three, in 1938, she was shipped to the USSR to save her from the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Barcelona. In 1958, Lea returns to Spain, where she is immediately torn between her loyalty to her godfather Jimmy, who rescued her as a child, and her devotion to the Socialist cause. Her choices have consequences that reach into the present day and draw Alienor into a complex web of intrigue.

The other group of stolen children never left Spain. The whole arrangement sounds like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Tell us how it worked.

You’re right! During Francisco Franco’s regime, from 1939 through the early 1970s, a Spanish psychiatrist named Antonio Vallejo-Nájera developed a policy of “social eugenics”—a euphemism for stealing thousands of babies from “undesirable mothers” (whom they called anarchists, Republicans, communists, or whatever label was at hand). Many of the babies were born in church clinics, and after telling the mothers their newborns had died, the church “placed” them with approved families vetted by Franco’s supporters. Eventually the “stolen baby” trade was taken over by criminals who sold the the children for profit.

And how does Alienor get caught up in investigating this story?

Allie interviews Fabiana Carrasco, the director of Vida Robadas (Stolen Lives), who has been searching for her own baby (stolen in 1982) and is devoted to helping other birth mothers in the same boat. When Allie learns that Lea Benveniste’s baby was stolen from the clinic where Fabiana gave birth, the two of them team up to investigate. (Fabiana is based on a real person—Maria Bueno, the director of SOS Bebés Robados—whom I met in Granada. María urged me to write about the fate of the stolen babies and helped me with my research.)

Are you already writing another novel?

Although I haven’t put pen to paper yet, the third book in the series will be a novella, set mainly in Seattle and eastern Washington. It will explore some of the similarities between authoritarian regimes now on the rise in Europe and the proponents of the same repressive ideology in the United States. Wish me luck!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

You’re welcome!

A smiling woman with light brown hair stares at the camera; head shot of Joyce Yarrow by Jenny Boyle

Joyce Yarrow—avid bird-watcher and author of suspense novels that, according to Library Journal, “appeal to readers who enjoy unusual mysteries with an international setting”—has also worked as a screenwriter, singer-songwriter, multimedia performance artist, and member of the world music vocal ensemble Abráce. Find out more about her and her books at

Photograph of Joyce Yarrow © Jenny Boyle. Reproduced with permission.

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Apr 12

Thanks for asking such insightful questions that probe the heart of the book.

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