The historical novel, Like A River by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, is the 2015 recipient of the Grateful American Book Prize. Kathy is a prolific writer but her civil war novel is the first to be published, but not the last. She is hard at work producing new works with the goal of engaging in the study of American history. In an interview shortly after receiving her Prize she said: “I attempt to slip in historical details in a way that doesn’t shout, “History lesson here!” If a reader is engaged with a character and a story, lessons will be learned, though inadvertently.”
The plot of Like A River is so specifically aimed at engaging young readers. What was your inspiration for writing it?
Everything I write begins with what I call a “spark.” The spark for Like A River was the Sultana disaster. When I first learned of this incident on the Mississippi River that killed more people than died on the Titanic, I wanted to know why I had never heard of it before, why it was never mentioned in history class when I was a student. Every school kid has heard of the Titanic, and I wanted them to know about the Sultana as well.
Your background in creative writing and language arts indicates a passion for prose; yet Like A River is your first novel. Can you describe your motivation and the process you used for developing this project from conception to publication? Like A River is my first published novel, but it is not the first I wrote. It is actually my eleventh completed novel. I have also written dozens of short stories and hundreds of poems. Writing has been my passion since I was a child, and that passion has always been my motivation. I eventually merged that passion with my other passion, that for history. But it took nearly forty years of submitting novels to editors before I was offered a contract for Like A River. During those years, I attended workshops and conferences to learn more about the publishing industry and writing for young readers. I refused to give up. We often hear of the role of inspiration and perspiration, but it also takes determination.
In 2008, I took an early rough idea for the novel that became Like A River to a Highlights Foundation workshop. In that early synopsis, Leander was the only protagonist and all the events would happen to him. At the workshop, author Rich Wallace advised me to add a new love interest for Leander. That advice led to my completely rethinking the novel. I added the character of Polly, and decided to make her a main character and tell half the story from her Point of View. I felt recharged and began again. It is amazing how one suggestion can turn a story in a different direction. It is hard for me to imagine the story without Polly.
You were quoted as saying that your passion for US History came not from history class, but from reading biographies and historical fiction. While you were conceiving, researching and writing Like A River, was it one of your intentions to make “history come alive” for new generations of early learners? Definitely. I rarely liked history class. Memorizing lists of generals, battles, and causes bored me, but when history read like a story, I was hooked. I fell in love with history through biographies of Lincoln, Washington, and Lee, and I relished stories that transported me into the past. Well-developed fictional characters took me on marvelous adventures and I always eagerly read the Author’s Note at the end of a story that separated fact from fiction. It never seemed like a history lesson, but I learned so much. When I hear from readers of Like A River, my favorite compliment is “I felt I was there with Leander and Polly.” If I can transport a reader into the past, the lesson will stay with him longer than any history class, because he has “been there.”
What lessons can young readers learn from Like A River? How does it enhance their classroom study of history? My main goal was to tell an interesting story that gripped readers by their emotions and made them want to turn each page. I attempt to slip in historical details in a way that doesn’t shout, “History lesson here!” If a reader is engaged with a character and a story, lessons will be learned, though inadvertently. A reader sees that the Civil War was a war between two halves of our country, and learns where that war fits into our nation’s timeline. They learn that Lincoln was president at the time and that West Virginia was part of Virginia and became a state as a result of the war. They see the differences in gender roles between today and 150 years ago. In the classroom, they would typically learn about battles and generals. Like A River shows them a Civil War hospital, Andersonville Prison, and the Sultana disaster, but also lets them see how average people lived and thought. They can witness ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances and see many ways in which those people are like themselves. I hope that will make them crave to learn more.
Is your second novel, Empty Places, also intended for young readers? What message or messages for youngsters is contained in this book? Yes, Empty Places is for young readers (ages 9 and up). It is a first-person narrative told by a thirteen-year-old girl, and takes place in 1932 in Harlan County, Kentucky. It’s a book about a coal miner’s family struggling through the Great Depression. It’s a different time period from Like A River, but both books are about surviving difficult circumstances. In addition to learning more about the Great Depression, a reader can see life in an impoverished, rural setting that might be very different from their own experience. Empty Places is also a book about Family.
Your parents obviously played a major role in your love of country and love of reading and writing. We gather that they told you a lot of stories about their lives. Can you tell us what your childhood was like and how it inspired your adult life/career? My father served in the US Army Air Corps, and it would take a whole book to tell his experiences during World War II. Several members of his flight crew spent much of the war in a POW camp. They are part of the reason I included a tribute to Prisoners of War on the dedication page of Like A River. Dad also lost friends in the war, and he flew the American flag in the front yard every day as a sign of respect for our nation and admiration for those who fought to protect it.
My mother told me often about her early childhood in Marburg, Germany. It wasn’t an easy childhood. When, as a child, she was sent to the US to live with an aunt, becoming an American and being accepted as one were important to her. She even changed the pronunciation of her name to make it sound more American. Mom was a teacher and a poet—and my first writing teacher. During my earliest years, Mom ran a nursery school in our home, so books, puzzles, and Story Time were part of every day. I had an early fascination with words and storytelling.
When I began first grade, Mom gave up the nursery school and went back to traditional teaching. I am the third of seven siblings, so I always had other kids around, even without the nursery school. Family has always been important to me.
As an adult, I did some part-time teaching, but writing was my true passion, and I believed a book could reach more classrooms than I could.
The process of researching your novels to ensure historical accuracy must be an arduous undertaking. How did you go about it? Because I find history so interesting, I never consider research as “arduous,” though it does take considerable work and dedication to accuracy. With Like A River, I worked backward. Since I wanted to tell the story of the Sultana, I read everything I could about the disaster in particular and steamboats in general. I even participated in a steamboat race. When I learned that most of the men aboard the Sultana were released from two Confederate prison camps, I read about them both and decided to focus on Andersonville. I went to Andersonville (both the town and the site of the prison). I visited museums and walked the grounds that had once been a prison. I saw Providence Spring, that saved many lives after August, 1864. When I visited the cemetery, the final resting place for many of those who died there, I knew I had to tell a story that did justice to those prisoners, to let readers know what their experience had been. In the POW museum there, staff members pointed me to books on the prison to do more research.
My next stop was Vicksburg, where the prisoners boarded the Sultana. The Mississippi has changed course in the last 150 years, so I had to look at pictures and use my imagination to try to visualize it as it was then.
I also went to Rome, Georgia, where I visited the Shorter mansion. It was a school when I was there, but it had been Colonel Shorter’s home before the Civil War and was used as a hospital during the war, first for Confederate wounded and later by Union wounded. It was the perfect inspiration for the hospital where Leander and Polly meet.
I went to Memphis, the Sultana’s last port before her demise, and I visited graves of Sultana victims there. I stood on the riverbank and tried to put myself into the minds of those long-ago passengers. My husband and I drove across the bridge to West Memphis. The Mississippi spread into the Arkansas flood plain, much as it did that fateful day in 1865, so I was able to get a clear picture in my mind.
I also read diaries and letters written during the Civil War, to find tidbits of life during those days, as well as to “hear” voices from that time. I talked to medical experts and military experts to make sure I portrayed those things accurately.
I visited the Ohio area that I chose for Leander’s home and the West Virginia one I chose for Polly. Those visits helped to make the characters become real for me. If I want a character to feel real for a reader, that character must first feel real for me.
Some may consider all that “arduous.” I found it exciting and inspiring.
Have you any new projects under development? Can you tell us about your likely next work? I am currently reworking a novel I first wrote seventeen years ago. It is set against the backdrop of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I am also working on a new novel about the 1937 Flood in the Ohio River Valley. That one is based on my father’s stories about living during that record-breaking flood. In addition, I am always researching interesting historical facts that I hope will become novels or short stories some time in the future. By doing that, I am never at a loss for something to do when I finish a novel. There is always a “new beginning” to latch on to. After all, that is how both Like A River and Empty Places began.
What role do you think the Grateful American Book Prize can play in rejuvenating an earlier—and greater—interest in history among young people? I meet many writers who write fantasy or dystopian novels. I think—and hope—the Grateful American Book Prize can entice more of them to tackle historical subjects. It can also push writers who want to write historical books to buckle down and put in the work. If more good history is written, maybe publishing houses will become more interested in adding historical titles to their lists. The Prize can also make teachers more aware of a title to use in the classroom. If students are drawn into a story and find the read a compelling one, word will spread among teachers and readers both. And readers eager to read more history and learn more about our past would be the ultimate prize.