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Bringing the 'Story' Back into 'History'

by Marissa Moss
August 11, 2011
Most students think of history as a boring list of names and dates, a series of wars, treaties, and political events. Many textbooks introduce history in just this way, serving up events as themes. It's no wonder readers aren't inspired.

History is so much more than the dates a particular king reigned or the spread of a particular technology. It's the story of all of us throughout time. Studying history should be like having an adventure in another time and place.

One reason I write historical fiction and biographies is because I want kids to see how exciting real history is. Textbooks may be boring, but going right to original source material rarely is. When I wrote the diary of a pioneer girl taking the Oregon Trail in 1850, I read stacks of pioneer journals, some published, some not. I felt like I was looking over the writers' shoulders, fording rivers alongside them. The result, Rachel's Journal, is meant to give students the same thrill I got, the same sense of being close to an experience that happened in a completely different era.

The Oregon Trail or the American Revolution are obvious subjects. Every student learns about them, but few are excited by them, despite each having a history that's truly riveting if only it were told like a great story. This is what writers owe readers, what teachers owe students—a sense of the story that tells the history.

One way to grab students is to tell them tales they don't know about, giving them that wonderful sense of discovery. I love stumbling on little-known stories that grab both 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. These are the kind of stories kids can really care about.

Maggie Gee was that kind of lucky discovery. I found her in a local newspaper article 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. 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.

Since Sky High came out, Maggie, Carl Angel (the book’s illustrator), and I have done many school visits, presenting both the book and the subject of the book, a rare event. The students are always inspired by Maggie, her infectious optimism, her advice to ignore barriers and focus instead on opportunities. Meeting Maggie is like meeting living history in the shape of your grandmother. She shows the kids that anyone can make history. At one poor school in Oakland, a boy was so moved by Maggie, he asked her to sign his most prized possession—his soccer ball.

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’s lives hold 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. Again, that magic "aha" moment of discovery!

That woman was Sara Emma Edmonds, a.k.a. 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 in April 2011 by Abrams.

Though the subject is complicated, students find the story compelling. It makes them think and ask questions. Why would a woman need to dress as a man to serve in the army? Why would you choose to fight in the Civil War? What did it mean to be a spy in those days? And that's how you learn history, by asking just these kinds of questions.

A picture book like this makes history accessible to younger children, but as pleased as I was with the picture book, there was so much more to say about Sara than could fit in that constrained format. I went on to write a middle-grade novel, with the luxury of chapter upon chapter to unfold the many facets of Sara. I could show her tenderness as a nurse, her bravery as a postmaster on lonely roads known for ambushes, her fierce loyalty to her fellow-soldiers in battle, her quick-thinking as a spy. And I could show the loneliness and stress that her disguise cost her, the burden of living a lie on a deeply ethical and honest person.

Sara had to dress as a man to serve the country she loved. Maggie could enlist, but had her opportunities curbed because she was a woman. Women in the military today aren't officially allowed "in combat," but since they’re in active combat zones, they face the same risks as the men without the same possibilities for promotion and recognition.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, women are still living little-known stories that we’ll only learn about later. They are truly history in the making. Someday we'll read about how courageous and capable they’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they've always been, whenever they've been given the chance or secretly taken it.

These are other questions students are inspired to ask: who is making history now? What are they doing? What matters enough to be "history"? What doesn't?

Anyone who asks those questions is already a historian.

Marissa Moss has written and illustrated many books for children, including the popular Amelia's Notebook series and her middle-grade novel THE PHARAOH'S SECRET. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

© 2011 Marissa Moss. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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