“I remember the day they burned the German books.” It was the mid nineteen eighties and I was recording my mother’s memories of her childhood. My mother was in her seventies and she was in the midst of some of the best years of her life. She had recently moved to Madison and gotten involved in activities that were not available to her in her hometown of Menomonee Falls. I thought it was time to record the events of this amazing woman’s life before it was too late. I needn’t have worried. She lived to be ninety.
I had just asked her what she remembered about World War I. “Two things,” she said. “Armistice Day. A woman ran up to me in the grocery store and hugged me. ‘My boy is coming home,’ she said.” My mother’s other memory was the day “they burned the German books.”
The memory of that stayed with me over the years and finally nagged me into writing my most recent novel, Jingo Fever. But the evolution of this middle grade fiction starts long before the 1980’s. In fact, it begins when I was very young.
When I was nine-years-old my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother, even though in the midst of a deep depression, pulled up stakes, sold a portion of our small hobby farm and moved to the village of Menomonee Falls. I was devastated to lose my life in the country, especially my beloved horse,Tex. But my mother had to care for her two daughters, myself and my sister, Chris, who was just fifteen. Mom couldn’t take care of our land and animals without Dad.
It was shortly after the death of my father that I started making up stories. I could not have articulated it back then, but somewhere in my broken heart, a writer was born.
So, with the help of our social security checks, we survived. Mom worked minimum wage jobs and as soon as Chris graduated she got a full time job. We both worked as teenagers. But I wanted to go to college. I applied for financial aid, but because Mom couldn’t sell all the land we owned (no one wanted it) her assets on paper disqualified me from any “free money.” However, I was eligible for a work-study grant.
This is where my novel, Jingo Fever, begins to evolve. I arrived at the UW-Madison in 1970 armed with some savings and my work-study grant. Because I was a history major I was placed, most serendipitously, with Professor E. David Cronon. I was young and naïve and did not realize the privilege I was about to experience. Google his name to find out more about the late professor. Suffice it to say, working with him was indeed a privilege.
Professor Cronon was researching the political climate of Wisconsin during World War I. He sent me to the Historical Society archives to read—on microfiche—newspapers from that time. What I found was astonishing. The civil rights abuses of German-American immigrants and others shocked me. Every day, as I took notes on my 3×5 cards, and later as I typed them up for the professor, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Someone set up a machine gun across from the Pabst Theatre to keep German plays from being performed there. A Molotov cocktail was put in the mailbox of a Monroe cheese maker. Two German professors from Ashland were tarred and feathered.
These stories, too, stayed with me for years. Finally, in the 1990’s I began work on Jingo Fever. But if it had not been for the Federal government helping my family, first with social security checks and then with a work-study grant, I might never have gone to college. Never had the chance to work with a distinguished professor. Never finished a manuscript called Jingo Fever. I can’t say for sure, but my mother’s story alone might not have been enough to help me accomplish that. I am grateful to this day for those opportunities that helped me achieve my goal of becoming a writer.
I am reminded how lucky I was every time I hear that financial aid for college students is being cut. Can we afford to risk that some future writer, scientist or professor may never have the same opportunity I had? Can our country afford to lose the creativity, intellect and contributions of those future leaders? Absolutely not. We, as a nation, are better than that. We, as a nation, invest in the dreams of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Don’t we?