Kokio

A Novel Based on the Life of Neill James

I have often wondered if I ever appear in Neill’s dreams. Ten years after she left France her first book was published. When I read it I was pleased to see that she mentioned me and our months together in Paris, although she omitted all but the slightest reference to our home near Honolulu and left out completely the times we were together in Denmark and Florida. Even now I occasionally have dreams about her, but they occur ever less often as the years go by.
—Narrator “Geraldine Sartain” in Kokio, Chapter V.

Neill James traveled the world and wrote about her exotic sojourns to places even the most intrepid explorers and war correspondents rarely saw. Her books documented the cultures of Lapland’s Sami reindeer herders, the Ainu of northern Japan, and Mexico’s Otomí. Then, in mid-life, she suddenly stopped writing and traveling and remained for the next fifty years in a remote Mexican pueblo. Why? In this biographical novel, author Stephen Preston Banks imagines a plausible life story, involving espionage, obsessions, and broken promises.

Dr. Banks became a bit obsessed with this strong yet shadowy figure from the last century, and wound up researching her for ten years. He continuously came up with information showing that Neill James “had lied about or exaggerated or hidden her own story.” Here’s how he writes about that in an Author’s Note following the novel’s end:

She reframed her identity again and again. She wrote and published wedding announcements for her marriage to Harold Charles Knilands Scott-McGregor Campbell, but no evidence of the marriage has been found, not by me and not by James family members or other researchers. It didn’t help my work that she used different names for the putative husband in letters and several public documents and that she attributed to him an apparently phony college degree from Carnegie Tech.

My belief is that her travel books papered over a second, secret career. Again, scant evidence is available about her intelligence work, and my conclusion that she had been a spy is based on patterns of her activities, suggestive government documents and interviews with persons who had come to the same judgment as mine. With her dissembling she divided people: I interviewed expatriates in Mexico who adored her, others who merely tolerated her and still others who had nothing good to say about her. Most of them, like Mildred Boyd, had never met her.

Yet Neill James was a bold, passionate and accomplished woman, and she lived an exceptionally long and adventure-filled life. Most of the broader events depicted in this book I believe are true, though I have embellished them with details, fictional characters, and subplots to tell a story. I followed Neill’s exact itinerary, from birth to her final rest. I placed her in actual historical settings and activities–labor unrest and U.S. Army negative intelligence around World War I in the Pacific Northwest and espionage elsewhere in the United States during the interwar period; intelligence operations targeting Japanese nationals in Hawaii, Japan and the Chinese mainland; all the details on the Third Asiatic Expedition and J. Mckenzie Young, the movements of Agnes Smedley with the Indian independence group and the Eastern Comintern in China, and the Institute of Pacific Relations material–these and more align generally with the historical record.

My coverage of events that happened on the world stage during Neill’s life is not intended to be history. Moreover, I know of no hard evidence that would prove that Neill actually met up with Smedley or Hu Shih or Ernest Hemingway. On the other hand, it is at least plausible, because she was in the right neighborhoods at the right times and it is unlikely that she would have passed up the opportunity.

Interested? You may wish to read Dr. Banks’s prologue to the book, either online right here or as part of the free sample of the Kindle version you can download to your e-reader.

Reviews

Kokio is a wonderful contribution to the increasingly popular genre of biographical novels. Rather than dramatizing the story of a famous figure like Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sylvia Plath, or Marilyn Monroe, as so many skillful biographical novelists have done, Stephen Banks pictures the unfamiliar life of Neill James, a spectacular woman who was an under-cover intelligence agent, travel writer, novelist, and adventurer. Kokio testifies to the value and power of the biographical novel, which, in this instance, does the important cultural and historical work of resurrecting a nearly lost life.
Stephen Banks refers to Kokio, based on the life of Neill James–intelligence agent, intrepid adventurer, writer and, above all, a woman adept at recreating herself–as a novel based on a life, but that’s an understatement. He’s accomplished far more. After ten years of intensive research, Banks has succeeded in creating a character so believable, so true to life, she jumps off the page of this masterful page-turner of a book.
Neill James had the rare luck and the rare talent to invent–and re-vent–her life as she lived it. Her “inventions” often disguised secrets; some trivial, others not. Stephen Banks has done a masterful job of reconstructing and revealing that life, weaving it together with a strand of fiction that Neill, doubtless, would appreciate.