age range: 10-14 years
setting: Colorado, 1917
Jeannie Mobley’s website
Pearl’s lively narration reveals her transformation from an old-fashioned, romantic girl into a spirited, courageous champion. Mobley uses the legend of Silverheels to effectively “raise questions about the traditional roles of women and their sources of strength,” as she writes in her author’s note, against the backdrop of wartime Colorado. An engrossing, plausible story of several unlikely feminist heroines with a touch of romance and intrigue. — Kirkus Reviews
Please tell us about your book.
Searching for Silverheels is the story of a romantically minded 13 year old, Pearl, who works in her family’s café in the small mountain town of Como, Colorado in 1917, just after the United States has entered the First World War. She loves the local legend of Silverheels, a dance hall girl of the gold rush era, who saved a town from smallpox. However, Josie, a cynical old women’s suffragist, scoffs at Pearl for telling the story to the tourists, arguing that Silverheels was more likely a crook after the miner’s gold than a hero. They enter into a bet, each trying to prove their version of the legend, but in the mean time, accusations of sedition and anti-patriotism arise in the town, threatening both Pearl’s family and Josie. Pearl is forced to decide what she really believes in and to act, even if it costs her.
What inspired you to write this story?
I have known the legend of Silverheels for as long as I can remember, being a Colorado native that spent a great deal of time in the mountains in the area where Silverheels lived, and where there is, to this day, a mountain named after her. I hadn’t thought about the legend for a long time, but when I heard it again I realized there are some odd inconsistencies in it that made me think that Silverheels had the perfect set up for a scam–tend the dying miners, seduce them with her legendary beauty, and then take their gold. As a kid, I had loved the legend for its romantic, tragic beauty, and having this new vision of it as a more cynical adult, I thought, what an interesting story it would be to debate the story from the two sides.
I also realized what a good set up for exploring the roles of women in traditional society, and all the ways that women are called to be strong. So, I chose to set it during World War I so I could bring in the suffrage movement as well as all the things women did on the home front to keep the country going during the war.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I did very little book research before I started writing this story. Since I’ve known the legend of Silverheels and the area where the story took place since childhood, I tried to draw on deep childhood memories to shape the character of Pearl and her experiences and feelings about her mountain home. While Pearl’s story is entirely fictitious, her feelings and personality are drawn very much on who I was as a kid. So, I did a small amount of research about the home front in various wars, and settled on World War I, mostly because the National Women’s party, one arm of the suffrage movement, came to blows with the authorities over criticizing the president during war time.
I researched details as I wrote, stopping when I needed to fill in a detail–like when the first Liberty Bonds were issued, what they cost and how the program worked, or what the train schedule was like in Como, a railroad hub of the era, or how long it might have taken by train to get from one location to another. Sometimes those details would draw me into an hour of research, sometimes I’d have to work on research for a day or more. And there were a few times I found things out and had to back up and rewrite things I had gotten wrong. That is a definite problem with my system of research-as-I-go, but I don’t know what I need to research until I get there.
Always, when I am writing a piece of historical fiction, I am “researching” in my time away from the writing desk, too. I watch TV programs or read novels set in that era or written in that era, I listen to period music, and I daydream, to get my mind steeped in the deeper feeling of the time period.
What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?
Of course, there is always the challenge of getting the historical era right and finding the balance of including enough historical detail to get a sense of the era without overdoing it. I think it is also important to hit the right balance of making it feel familiar and also exotic. Historical fiction appeals to readers for its ability to help us escape into a different world, but at the same time, I think historical fiction has a romantic appeal too. There is something warm about the “good old days,” even if they weren’t all that good in reality. I think many readers like the comfortable warmth of stories set in the late 19th/early 20th century. The sense of family and of home that linger in the memories of adults who read the Little House books as kids, for example.
So for me, I try to evoke some of those same feelings in my work, while still being true to all the things that made the “good old days” not so good. Because there was a lot of hard work and discrimination and sexism in those days, and there was a struggle to survive. I try to keep all of that present in my work.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
My book looks at traditional roles of women, the home front during war, and the suffrage movement, all topics of interest in American History. We are now in the hundredth anniversary of World War I, which began in Europe in the summer of 1914, and continued until 1918. For the United States, the centennial of our involvement in the war doesn’t begin until 2017, but there is a new focus on that war right now, and this book fits into that topic very neatly.
I also think that historical fiction can fit in nicely with the focus of the Common Core on increased attention to informational texts, which include things like non-fiction and primary sources. One of the intriguing things about historical fiction is it creates a personal interest in history, because it gets the reader emotionally involved with people in the past. And once that emotional involvement is there, it is much more interesting to do the background research (for example, people who never study history often love researching an ancestor).
So, I think historical fiction can be a wonderful gateway into those informational texts, as readers of the novel say, “Did that really happen?” or “Did people really do that back then?” Those questions can be used as starting points for digging in deeper and finding out the truth. For example, in my book, suffragists are arrested at the White House in July of 1917, which triggers a protest rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. Readers might then ask, did that really happen, and they can turn to the history books or old newspapers to find out. Toward that end, I do include various links to research resources in my teachers guides and on my website.