An Interview with Jim Murphy about The Journal of James Edmond Pease

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: What new things did you learn about history and adventure as you did the research for The Journal of James Edmond Pease: A Civil War Union Soldier?

Jim Murphy: Part of my research focused on the many different personalities a boy might have to deal with while taking part in the Civil War. Take James's Company G: his lieutenant feels dishonored because he has been reduced in rank; his first sergeant is a no-nonsense army regular who considers the war little more than a job; Charlie Shelp is a loud-mouthed bully, while William Kittler is a recluse who prefers to be by himself (and only later do we find out why). There is even a deserter in the group. James himself is a scared, shy and insecure boy when we first meet him, but by the end of the story he is a young man with a real sense of self-worth and achievement. Part of his transformation is due to his experiences in battle, but of equal importance is how he deals with the many different and sometimes difficult people he meets along the way.

RFA & LMP: Why did you decide to make James an orphan and have him referred to so often as a Jonah?

JM: I wanted readers to know that he had no outside support or love from friends and family. He begins the book truly on his own and has no one to fall back on. Everything he has become at the end of his diary he has accomplished through his own efforts. The term Jonah was often given to soldiers who had a run of bad luck. James accepts this nickname without much fuss early on, but manages to shake it off as his list of accomplishments grows.

RFA & LMP: We find out at the end of James's diary that the shy soldier, William Kittler, was actually a woman in disguise who had joined the army in a moment of patriotic fervor. How widespread was this during the Civil War?

JM: We will never know exactly how many women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. At the close of the hostilities, it was estimated that approximately 400 women had managed to enlist, but this number is almost certainly too low. Most women soldiers signed up without any fanfare, served bravely and then, like any other soldier, went home quietly at the end of the war. Today we might find it hard to believe that a woman could serve for years in the army and never be found out, but the truth is that it was much easier to pull off back then. It wasn't unusual for a man to refuse to totally undress in front of other men, even when taking a bath! What is more, a huge number of boys served in the army (as soldiers, drummers or telegraph operators) so a high-pitched voice wasn't uncommon.

RFA & LMP: If a young reader of The Journal of James Edmond Pease wanted to read one or two nonfiction books in addition to your book The Boys' War, what titles would you suggest?

JM: A wonderful history of the war told mostly through firsthand accounts is Henry Steele Commanger's The Blue and the Gray (Vols. 1 and 2); a really stunning and very detailed account of one battle is Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears; and Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels gives readers an amazing view of the Battle of Gettysburg (though I disagree with how he favorably portrays General James Longstreet).

RFA & LMP: If you could ask young readers one question after they finished reading James's diary, what would that question be?

JM: If you lived at the time of the Civil War, would you volunteer to fight? Before giving an answer, I would ask readers to make a list (in order of importance) of five reasons why they would enlist and five reasons why they wouldn't.

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of James Edmond Pease: A Civil War Union Soldier?

JM: I would hope they realize that no matter how insecure they might feel, they still possess the potential for greatness and bravery. Bravery, by the way, doesn't just mean fighting in a war. To me, James's ability to deal with Shelp is a real form of bravery.

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:
    Civil War Period and Reconstruction, American Civil War
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