Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Unexpected Hero

Continuing the theme of “great discoveries while researching…”

One of my enduring memories of college is sitting in a big lounge chair in a t-shirt and cut-offs, reading Walt Whitman’s poetry instead of doing my homework.

Unlike some other poets who seemed to live in a rarified world instead of the real world, Walt was right there in the thick of things: milling around with the other passengers on the ferry boat and tramping down the road in his great big boots.

There was something so elemental and relatable in his imagery and language; I could feel the person behind the poem.

It’s not surprising, then, when I began to write picture book biographies years later, that I would return to Walt Whitman as a long lost friend. But while I’d read and loved his poetry, I’d never actually read much about his life. I came to the research for Walt Whitman: Words for America expecting to write a book about a rambling man, hungry for new experiences, living his life with vigor and making myriad friends along the way.

I did not expect to discover that he was also a true hero.

For several years during the American Civil War, Walt tirelessly volunteered in the Civil War hospitals of Washington D.C. He was not trained as a medical professional, and yet his sheer presence brought comfort and cheer to thousands of wounded soldiers.

Walt kept notebooks filled with reminders of “little gifts” he could bring to ease the soldiers’ long days:

David S. Giles—Company F 28th New Jersey Volunteers—wants an apple
Janus Mafield—7th Virginia Volunteers—2 oranges
Henry D. Boardman—Company B 27th Connecticut Volunteers—wants a rice pudding, not very sweet

He read to soldiers. He wrote letters home for them. Sometimes he simply sat quietly with a dying soldier so he would not have to die alone.

Walt called this experience “the greatest privilege and satisfaction” of his life, and yet the effort took at permanent toll on his health—by war’s end, he was exhausted and never regained the health and vigor he had enjoyed before the war.

A picture book biographer, constrained by the physical limitations of the genre (these books are short!), looks for a theme to carry the book, a simple concept to give focus and clarity to a complex life. Walt’s wartime experience—displaying his generosity of spirit, his care for others, and his love of country—did just that.


Vicki Cobb said...

Great post, Barb. You have articulated the BIG IDEA that distinguishes creative nonfiction from text books: "a theme to carry the book, a simple concept to give focus and clarity." In order to understand facts, kids need a conceptual framework,on which to hang information. In fiction, this is provided by character and plots.
In nonfiction, the central theme and idea only comes after an author's thorough immersion in all the unconnected stuff you have to learn before your brain processes it and gives you the insight to understand where you're going. Once you get the big idea you can give the material narrative thrust, make trivialities delightful and enriching, and provide a true context for learning.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Vicki said just what I wanted to say in praise of your post. I'll just add: brava. This post is a must-read for anyone who is thinking about writing narrative non-fiction. Also a great teaching moment. Thanks, Barb.

Karen Romano Young said...

I loved this post, Barb. Finding someone's journal -- with his private notes that show his unseen kindness: priceless.

Charlotte said...

I liked Walt tons before, but now even more so. I will look for this one!