An Interview with Barry Denenberg about When Will This Cruel War Be Over?

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti: You have said that one of the things that appealed to you about writing When Will This Cruel War Be Over? was that it allowed you to write "history from the bottom up, not the top down." Could you explain that, and tell us what you enjoyed most about writing Emma's diary?

Barry Denenberg: I was taught American history as the story of presidents, kings, queens, wars, and treaties. Although knowledge of these things is essential, by itself it gives a false sense of history. In writing Emma's diary, I used primary sources that included letters, diaries, documents, and oral histories of the American people at all layers of society. That is essential for a true understanding of history. What I wanted to do was provide my readers with this kind of perspective. The part I enjoyed most about writing the diary was doing the research necessary to imagine what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old, aristocratic, slave owning Virginia girl living in 1864.

RFA & LMP: Would you describe the research that went into writing Emma's diary?

BD: I write as an excuse to do research. I read over seventy-five books about the Civil War, including diaries and letters. One of my great joys is to immerse myself in books on a particular subject and truly reconstruct what it was like to be there. There were two critical points in my research process to write Emma's diary. One was when I realized my understanding of the Civil War was superficial. Humility is the first step in writing good history. Then, about ten or fifteen books down the line, I began to assemble some understanding of the times and knew that at least I was on the right track. I think it was Carl Sandburg who said, "I don't know much and, come to think of it, what I do know, ain't so." The first thing I do is read enough to realize I don't know, and then I go from there.

RFA & LMP: Point of view is very important in this novel. You write about the Civil War from a Southern viewpoint and a female viewpoint. How were you able to "...almost feel what is was like to be Emma Simpson"?

BD: First you accept the challenge not to make judgments. I think that's valuable. You can't impose modern morality on your subject. I simply asked myself what it was like to be Emma. That's where the research is critical. You can't do too much research. To read diary after diary and letter after letter is worth the effort because, after a while, you can begin to think like your subject. Not only what they thought about a particular topic, but also how they thought and, therefore, what they would think about any topic. Then, once you've done your research, you can begin to define your character and start to think like your character and those around her. I became so familiar with Emma's personality that I actually had dreams as Emma Simpson.

RFA & LMP: What is one question you'd like to ask your readers after they have finished reading When Will This Cruel War Be Over?

BD: Did every word in Emma's diary ring true?

RFA & LMP: Books and reading, especially Jane Eyre, are very important to Emma. How does reading, and Jane Eyre in particular, help Emma?

BD: I was struck by how well read the girls were and how extensive their parents' libraries were. I compiled a list of books and read (or reread) some of them myself, in order to add color to the story. But Jane Eyre became something else both for me and for Emma. I read Jane Eyre through Emma's eyes. Jane, like Emma, is faced with constant adversity with little relief and not much hope. What is she to do? Cave in? Give up? Like Jane Eyre, Emma chooses (unlike Cousin Rachel) to persevere despite the odds. Emma takes heart from Jane Eyre's courage-she too will survive and thrive.

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading When Will This Cruel War Be Over?

BD: What I'd like them to take away is a realistic view of what war is about.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.

  • Subjects:
    Changes and New Experiences, Civil War Period and Reconstruction, American Civil War, Family Life, Survival
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