Monday, October 24, 2011

Guest Blogger Marissa Moss: "Finding the Story in History"

This month I am taking a break from blogging. In my slot, I am proud to present my friend and collaborator (on G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book), an esteemed author and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, Marissa Moss. You may be familiar with Marissa's popular Amelia's Notebook series or her other fictional series including Max Disaster and Daphne's Diary. She is also the author of several highly-praised (and highly-researched) journal-style historical fiction novels and a half-dozen non-fiction biographical picture books telling the remarkable stories of remarkable women. Here, Marissa shares the backstory of the history she writes.

I love stumbling on little-known stories that grab my imagination and sense of history. Those are the stories I turn into books, the tales of courage and achievement against the odds that deserve to be widely known. Is it a coincidence that many of these undiscovered gems are about women?

Women have mostly been absent from the grand epic of history. The ones that are recognized are an elite few, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Marie Curie. Much more fascinating to me are the ordinary women doing extraordinary things.

Maggie Gee is one such woman. I found her in a local newspaper story about WWII veterans, published naturally on veteran’s day. I didn’t know that women had flown warplanes in WWII and it seemed like an important story for kids (and adults) to know about.

I looked Maggie up in the phone book, called her and asked for an interview. That interview and the many conversations that followed became SKY HIGH: THE TRUE STORY OF MAGGIE GEE. What impressed me about Maggie was her drive, her optimism, her courage. She didn’t see barriers, but opportunities. Sure, there was discrimination against her, both as a woman, and as a Chinese-American, but she barely mentioned such problems when she talked about her life. Although her mother had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married Maggie’s father, a Chinese immigrant, that didn’t deter her from working as a welder on Liberty ships during the war, nor from encouraging her daughter to join the Women’s Army Service Pilots. After the WASP were disbanded, Maggie went on to charge through more doors, becoming a physicist and working on weapon systems at the Lawrence Livermore labs, another job that was rare for a woman, let alone an Asian-American woman.

I thought of Maggie’s grit, her enthusiasm for taking risks and following her dreams, when I started looking for a Civil War story. I wanted to find a woman who had made similar daring choices, but I wasn’t sure where to look. So I read widely, about both the North and the South. I learned that more than 400 women had disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers for one side or the other. Could one of those women be the story I wanted?

I plowed through books about nurses, soldiers, spies, but they all lacked some essential characteristic. Some were there to be with a husband, brother, father, or fiancé. Some were adventurous, but not particularly patriotic or admirable. Very few cared about the issue of slavery.

Sorting through all these women, I found one that seemed promising. The first book I read about her didn’t tell me much, but it gave me enough of a sense that I wanted to learn more. When I saw she’d written her own memoir of her soldiering life, that I could hear in her own voice her motives and intentions, it was like finding a treasure trove.

That woman was Sara Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson. She was everything I’d hoped for – she had integrity, bravery, loyalty to the Union. As a bonus, she wrote movingly about the horrors and wrongs of slavery. But there was more. Edmonds was the only woman to successfully petition the government after the war for status as a veteran. She wanted her charge of desertion changed to an honorable discharge, and she wanted a pension for her years of service. Suffering from malaria she’d caught in the Virgina peninsula campaign early in the war, she needed medical care she couldn’t afford without it.

It took several years and two separate acts of Congress, but Edmonds received the legal recognition she so richly deserved. Men she’d served with testified on her behalf, praising her steadiness under fire, her work as a battlefield nurse, a general’s adjutant, a postmaster, and even a spy.

Hers was a great story, a vast canvas that covered many of the pivotal battles of the war. Now that I’d found my subject, I had to shape this big life into a book. And a short book at that. I first wrote about Sara Emma Edmonds for a picture book, choosing to showcase her first spy mission, one emblematic event to stand for such a complicated life. That text became NURSE, SOLDIER, SPY, beautifully illustrated by John Hendrix, and published this past April by Abrams.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just learned about Maggie a few weeks ago, wondered why she hadn't crossed my radar before, and then I discover this glorious picture book. So glad you wrote it! She was an anomaly among Chinese American women of that era — perhaps even now!