Welcome to a very special visit to the blog by author Beth Anderson. I'm always excited about a new release by Anderson, since her picture books are reliably informative, entertaining, and packed with surprising facts and people who I feel I should have known about but did not. Her works always inspire me to improve my own research and writing and topics. I am especially pleased when Beth finds the time to respond to my endless questions about how she produces such wonderful and important works. (Prepare for a longer-than-usual post, but it is TOO GOOD to break into two parts! Read on!)
I had countless questions, but narrowed them down in hopes that her responses would be expansive, and she did not disappoint. I’m always informed and inspired by her interview content and urged her to proceed in whatever way allowed her to share her intentions and processes. Beth has been rigorous in her research and also in labeling of her books, often indicating that they are informational fiction rather than nonfiction. In nonfiction, every quotation, statement of fact, made and event must be verifiable from reliable sources. When a clearly authentic life or events becomes the topic of study, but sources suggest two or more versions of various details, or no content can be found to explain some details, it can be useful to weave the facts into a realistic and supportive narrative that allows for some kinds of conversations and interpretations. Then back matter can clarify the what and why of facts and fabrication or omission within the main text.
So, I'll get on without further delay.
|Calkins Creek, 2023|
Imprint of ASTRA Books
SB: Welcome, Beth. your profile picture books are often categorized as informational fiction, which allows you to generate stories that are compelling and complete through narrative literary style while incorporating an astonishing amount of factual content. CLOAKED IN COURAGE: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier succeeds in that approach with a wealth of fascinating facts despite the many mysteries still surrounding your subject. As you do so well, your author note makes clear what gaps and confusions interfered with finding definitive answers, then discussing your wide range of primary and secondary sources. Were there particular gaps that caused the greatest frustration? Things you still wonder most about to this day?
BA: This is one of those stories with some conflicting information and no way to prove exactly what’s correct. Technically, I’d call it historical fiction, one type of informational fiction. The categories seem to morph these days. But like my other books that fall into this category – I’d say it’s 95% nonfiction. What appears to be the most complete account of Deborah Sampson’s life is a bio by Herman Mann. He used her input, but apparently he didn’t think it was exciting or edgy enough so he took liberties, adding parts suspiciously like another book of the time and also putting her in battles that occurred before her enlistment. Mann also wrote her speeches when she went on the road as a lecturer. So… that whole book and her speeches are unreliable. But…historian Alfred Young took Mann’s book and examined every little piece, a truly great feat of historical detective work—and a huge help to me.
Probably the one piece of information I wanted most for the story was specifics on Sampson’s war wounds. Was it one musket ball in the thigh? Or two? One in the shoulder? The thigh and shoulder wounds vary a bit in different accounts. Did she dig it out successfully? Or was it too deep? I went after all that for a very long time. Experts have differing opinions. There is ample evidence that she was wounded. And two sources independent of Mann report that a shot remained in her. Deborah received an “invalid” pension and those records would have details, but unfortunately, they’re lost. There are multiple accounts of her digging out a thigh wound. Since her injuries were important to the story, I had to do the best I could.
Oh, and I’d really like to know how she hurt her finger!
SB: Following up, among aspects of your writing that I admire most is your capacity for incorporating verifiable facts without relying on the dreaded (and usually boring) “information dump”. An example occurs in the second full spread in which very young Deborah is seen riding away from home on a wagon with a very old man, having been “put out” to serve another family by her mother. It was necessary to avoid starvation and have “a chance” at surviving. Within that one paragraph and a single line that follows, readers are introduced to that process, and come to understand that her mother was assumed to be widowed with many small children, that she was struggling with sadness (possible depression?), and desperately lacking in money and food. What dramatic and jarring truths about historic practices this reveals, and yet remains a very personal and nonjudgmental element of Deborah Sampson’s personal history. I’m trying to imagine how many pages of sources you must have read to reach these few effective words on the page, and how you do it! Any insights on how you determine what matters most and how to frame it within personal stories?
BA: I’ve been realizing lately, as I revise another manuscript, that I have an aversion to long paragraphs on the page. 😆 Exactly what you said. Danger! Info dump! One of the major challenges is weaving in needed context without dumping a bunch of information that stalls the narrative. I try to embed it with action but it’s always difficult.
I learned a lot researching this story! I knew about the beginning of the Revolutionary War before I started REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT, however with Sampson’s story, I knew very little about the period of her enlistment from 1782-83. I had to dig into the Continental Army, traditions about women, media of the time, social customs, and so much more. Searching far and wide deepens my understanding of the character, motives, and stakes. The custom of children being “put out” or “bound out” was overwhelmingly sad from Deborah’s POV until I asked the questions WHY? and WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THE CHILD, EXACTLY? And then, how does this serve the story? To find that, I had to look through her mother’s eyes. I had to make this harsh reality comprehensible while keeping the story moving. The challenge becomes what to use and what to leave out. TMI (too much information) slogs and loses focus. No enough confuses.
|Interior spread, Cloaked in Courage, Calkins Creek, 2023|
As you guessed, there’s a lot more, from multiple sources, that’s not on the page, so here’s a bit of background info and my goals line by line. This was a TOUGH spread, the inciting incident.
· Deborah watched Mama slip into sadness. I needed to look from Deborah’s eyes and not make her mother the villain when she was going with her only option. I have to say it took a long while to get to this line.
· Too little money. And never enough food. These are realities a child can understand. Many complicating factors and details really aren’t necessary. This sets up Deborah leaving as giving her a chance for a better life. I used phrases to hit hard and slow the reader to take it in. And the previous spread, with its absolutely gorgeous and perfect illustration, just hinted that Deborah wants more from life and is looking to the future.
· And Papa hadn’t returned from the sea. The reality of her father “lost at sea” was that he had deserted the family. TMI. All Deborah would’ve known is that he never came back. Now Mama’s situation is clearer.
· With no way to earn a living, Mama offered her children what she could—a chance. Women were basically unable to raise children on their own because the only skills they were taught were to care for children and run the home. Most women had no way to earn a living. It’s also the beginning of the idea that hardship can have hidden value.
· Following tradition, she scattered them to different homes, “putting them out” to earn their keep. Mom was doing what was expected or normal—tradition. “Putting children out” was basically the foster care system of the time. It provided a way for kids to be cared for and, in some cases, to pay a debt. In the first two homes, Deborah provides help for elderly women, and in exchange, they provide food, shelter, and (lucky Deborah) teach her to read and write.
· Including five-year-old Deborah. Putting her age (needed info) here is impactful and pushes the reader forward to see what happens to her. (And the illustration is so perfect!)
I appreciate that you said this was “nonjudgmental” because my goal was to let the reader take in the historical truth and not tell them what to think. There’s no blaming, just the reality. This scene is about sympathy. And while it’s a terrible situation to think about, it was an important piece of Sampson’s story. The reader will root for her as she finds her way! Upon reflection, a reader can see how this scene supports Deborah’s choices to be independent and able to earn a living.
SB: I loved the ways in which you laid the groundwork within Deborah’s background, ways in which her personal development serving in several homes built her physical and mental strength, her reading ability, and important awareness of the political movement toward rebellion and revolutionary war. Of course, the illustrations contributed greatly to your lively text, providing a sense of her as prepared to take a stand as a woman on her own, not following societal routines of marriage by age eighteen. Her recognition that common gender roles should not, would not limit her choices in life is so deftly revealed. It sets the stage for her superior achievements while serving as a revolutionary soldier, cloaked not only by her uniform but by her successes. Are there particular aspects of her lifetime of accomplishments that you most admire?
BA: I was driven by the question What makes us who we are? Getting into the details of her indentured servant years, it became easy to see how she develops the skillset for her future. I really enjoy the pre-writing process when I try to “build” the story with pieces found in the research—a puzzle! She did “male” and “female” work, was surrounded by the call for independence, and, when I looked at the books available to her, wow! Certainly all us know that we’ve been shaped by our experiences, the social conditions, and what we read and hear. I had so much for that section, but had limited space. I was thrilled that Anne Lambelet was able to show so much in the art. I loved offering up a chance for readers to consider the impact of the Boston Tea Party and Declaration of Independence from the POV of a teen girl!
The idea of excellence and integrity as a shield was really interesting to me. My understanding is that it started in her childhood, and it amazes me that a child that was “put out” pushed herself forward so tenaciously. I admire her boundless spirit and how she was able to serve for seventeen months without being discovered. One of my favorite moments in the story is when she returns from Philadelphia to face her commanding officer with the truth of her gender inside the envelope she carries. She faced severe punishment, a fine, and imprisonment for dressing as a man and lying about her identity. Male soldiers deserted all the time. She easily could have, too. But she didn’t. When I look at a character who accomplishes something outstanding, I’m impressed and inspired. But what really intrigues me are the decisions. Why?
SB: The trajectory of Sampson’s life after serving is left open to the reader’s imagination. By that point in this account you have offered enough information for readers to have opinions about what Deborah might encounter in the way of obstacles, and also in potential support among open-minded individuals, as she set out alone. She intended to make the most of herself, seeking “a chance”, as her mother had done for her so long ago. We readers certainly anticipate that Deborah Sampson would not let obstacles stop her. Did this ending reveal itself to you all along, or were there other options you considered? I’ll admit this one feels perfect to me, yet I can’t help but wonder what other approaches might have made a case in your mind before finally deciding.
BA: Originally, I took the story further to include her return, starting her own family, her lecture tour, being her own business manager, and fighting for her pension. I kept shortening that section, and by the time I got to editorial revisions, those extras were cut way back and what Sampson did in the future went to back matter. As the manuscript was fine-tuned and the “heart” thread sharpened, it just sort of popped that there was a natural ending when her enlistment was over. She had broken free, proved herself, and we know she’ll face anything. Going on to include more loses something and doesn’t resonate in the reader’s mind.
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE is in final art with illustrator Jeremy Holmes. What I’ve seen so far is AMAZING! The story is history + science + humor—all my faves. (Spring 2024)
As yet unannounced is the story of another spunky female who “exceeds expectations” and has connections to Madison, WI; Illinois; and Washington, D.C. (I know that Madison connection got your attention, Sandy! HA!) By the time this posts, I should have editorial revisions finished and the manuscript moving on to an illustrator…..Can’t wait to share!
And always…a WIP! (SB: Work-in-Progress)
Thanks so much for your insightful and dig-deep questions, Sandy! And for all your heartfelt support!
SB: Beth, thank you so much for this opportunity to join in support of your book. It is truly a marvel and one that must have Deborah grinning from whatever “beyond” she might be in! I wish she had left even more of her story available to you, and to all of us, but you made masterful work of extensive evidence. Your treatment of her impressive and inspiring life deserves wide support and awareness. I’m delighted to offer that.
My full review of the book was in a recent post, and you can read it HERE. I'm not alone in praising this offering. To read other reviews and interviews about this book click HERE or listen to this terrific podcast/interview with Beth on "Confetti Moments", HERE. (It's episode 74 or you search without the link.)
I’m delighted to say that the publisher sent me an actual copy of CLOAKED, and the physical object is simply incredible.