Please tell us about your book.
It’s the winter of 1895. Eleven-year-old Stanley Slater finds himself stuck in a lumber camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with his meddlesome cousin, Geri (who insists on diagnosing him with all sorts of 19th century diseases), his evil granny, his sweet mama and a variety of unsavory characters like Stinky Pete (who may or may not be a Cold-Blooded Killer).
What inspired you to write this story?
I grew up with family stories, as we all do. I have always been particularly fascinated by my Great-Grandmother Cora who made her daughter (my grandmother) get married at 15. My grandmother ended up having a baby, naming him Stan, and then raising him as a single mother, working in a variety of places, including a lumber camp.
I also always thought my great-grandmother was incredibly mean. She was the inspiration for my characters’s crabby granny. Obviously. Click through to see her.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I researched everything from 19th century outhouses to 19th century slang terms. Google, of course, is great for this, but I also contacted people who are experts in the history of lumbering. I read all sorts of books (many no longer in print) and my 86 y.o. father and I took a field trip to Hartwick Pines, a fascinating state park about 1-1/2 hours from my house.
One of the things that I found interesting is that the Paul Bunyan tales may have been oral history in some camps but that they weren’t universally well known until around 1916. For that reason, I chose not to include references to Paul Bunyan in the book. I was also surprised with the hours lumberjacks put in on a daily basis, the fact that alcohol was not permitted in most camps, and that talking wasn’t allowed during meals—too readily this would lead to fights. Also, cooks were paid really well because a good cook would often be a lure to get the best men. And, finally, lumberjacks didn’t really like being called that in the early history of the job—being a “jack” was somewhat derogatory in the 1850s – 1870s—which is why they are also called Shanty Boys. They did embrace the term more toward the end of the 19th century, however.
What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?
I think it’s challenging to write historical fiction accurately with enough detail and authenticity without being too didactic (as in defining every term or historical event). I also found the little things difficult—how far would it take to get somewhere via wagon, for example. Or how much did 25 cents buy in the 1890s? Some homes had telephones, others didn’t; some streets had electric lights, some didn’t. How were homes heated? Where did water come from? Even if I never specifically used these details in the book, it’s important to at least know the answers since it’s the world where our characters are living.
What makes your book a perfect fit for the classroom?
One of the things I’m excited about (and what I would have loved as a teacher) is the inclusion of all of the images. Many of them are accessible from the Library of Congress website (loc.gov) and would be a great start-off point for additional research and/or a non-fiction tie-in.
I’ve also included some actual songs and recipes from the time period, which could lend themselves to Common Core standards. And the historical fiction is based on true stories so the connection to CCSS in history/social studies in the middle grades is definitely an option.