William Gross (or Grose) was a 19th-century African-American pioneer and hotelier in Seattle that caught the attention of author Amy Sommers. She bases her novel Rumors from Shanghai on a fictional grandson, Tolt Gross, a young lawyer who moves to Shanghai and soon after learns of Japan’s plans to bomb Pearl Harbor.
In Sommers’s story, Tolt Gross was raised by his grandfather after his parents succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic. Grandpa Bill employs at his hotel a Japanese handyman and a Chinese cook, both of whom taught their mother tongues to the young Tolt. Later, after Tolt graduates from law school, he is unable to find employment that suits his qualifications because he’s Black. Through one of his grandfather’s friends, the owner of a successful flour mill with offices in Asia, Holt is offered a job in Shanghai. Shanghai is not as much a leap as it might at first seem because Tolt’s law school classmates, Quentin Wang and Saburo “Tak” Takematsu now live there. Quentin’s parents met when his father, from an old Shanghai family, studied in Japan and met and married a Japanese woman who died in childbirth when Quentin and his sister Diana were born. Tak’s family lives in Japan. His sister Sumiko sometimes joins their band of friends in Shanghai. Vying for Sumiko’s attention is a cousin and Japanese naval officer named Takeda.
Takeda, for reasons not entirely clear, spills the beans to Tolt about Japan’s plans to bomb Pearl Harbor. Regardless of exactly why—other than possible machismo and competition for Sumiko—he would risk comprising his country’s military strike, it is here that Tolt’s blackness becomes significant to the plot: Takeda apparently feels safe telling Tolt because
No one in your country would believe the word of a Negro on a matter such as this. Even if you were inclined to try, my colleagues here in Shanghai would make sure you and your friends had nothing further to say.
Even when Tolt learns that Isoroku Yamamoto endorses an attack on Pearl Harbor, he doesn’t believe it. After all, Yamamoto opposed Japan’s attack of Manchuria in 1931 and all-out war with China in 1937. Still, Takeda is adamant about Japan’s plans to bomb Pearl Harbor and of course proves correct; American politicians in the US do not—as Takeda predicted—take Tolt seriously. Although contemporary readers know how this plays out and the race-based plot points can seem a bit contrived, Sommers’s thrilling lead-up to Pearl Harbor drives the story.
Besides Tolt’s grandfather Bill, Sommers uses other historical figures in her story, even if they are just mentioned in passing. At one point, Quentin’s father asks Tolt if he’s heard of Eugene Chen, China’s former Foreign Minister, and tries to show that he’s open-minded when it comes to race.
Chen grew up in Trinidad and his wife was part French and part African, so their children are a mixture of Chinese, Western and African races. I met Chen’s son Percy when he was in Shanghai.
Yet Sommers errs in the several references to “Swan, Culbertson and Fitz… the most successful brokers in town”: this should be Fritz. Similarly, the Chinese Tolt learned from the hotel cook in Seattle would almost certainly have been Cantonese at the time, which wouldn’t have done him much good in college or in Shanghai. Details matter when building verisimilitude.
Rumors from Shanghai combines two ever-popular themes in historical fiction, World War 2 and exotic, Republican-era Shanghai, overlaying these with race-relations—at least the African-American Tolt is not a jazz musician—and the fact that warnings about Pearl Harbor indeed fell on deaf American ears. The result is an entertaining thriller, as long as the reader is willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief along the way.