An Interview with Karen Hesse about A Light in the Storm

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: In your Newbery Award acceptance speech, you talked about how your discovery of the Boise City News provided you with important stories and information as you researched the Dust Bowl era for Out Of The Dust. Did your research for Amelia Martin's diary, A Light in the Storm, lead you to another newspaper or significant source like the Boise City News?

Karen Hesse: Yes. In fact I followed a similar path in doing the research for A Light In The Storm. I began with general resources, learned as much as I could about the period and then dove into the newspapers from the period. The Smyrna Times was the only daily I could find on microfilm published in eastern Delaware, dating back to the early 1860s. However, Smyrna is north of Fenwick Island, and Smyrna's residents sympathized more with the Union. Fenwick Island, Bayville, and other more southerly towns in Delaware leaned toward the Confederacy. I had to remember always that the newspaper I was studying was biased in a way different from the people I was writing about.

RFA & LMP: What did you enjoy most about writing in the diary format? What was the most difficult challenge in writing this novel in the diary form?

KH: I love telling a story in journal format. I've employed this technique before and no doubt will do so again. A writer can give the illusion of thoughts flowing effortlessly from the mind and heart of the narrator using the " journal." Readers gain uncensored access to all the subtle ways of the protagonist's character. So much information can be conveyed so quickly, so cleanly. I truly love working that way. Here's a secret though. There is a BIG difference between diary and journal. When I wrote the first version of A Light In The Storm, I wrote it as journal. After my editor, Tracy Mack, read that first manuscript, she very gently told me that in a diary there would be less dialogue, less flashback; the differences were subtle but they needed to be considered. She was absolutely right. I had to throw out the entire first attempt at the book (hundreds of pages of work) and start all over again. I used the same research but I had to think very differently as I shaped Amelia's entries.

RFA & LMP: It seems surprising that Mr. Martin lost his command for helping runaway slaves. Did you find evidence of similar incidents in the literature?

KH: I certainly did. There was an incident concerning a highly respected Captain who had hidden a rebel slave leader on his ship. The authorities were tipped off and boarded the ship as soon as it docked, searching for the fugitive. He was found, shackled and taken away and the Captain lost both his ship and his reputation. His career was over.

RFA & LMP: Why is Amelia's mother so sad? Is it because she really dislikes the island life and the sea or is it because she has fallen out of love with her husband? Is she modeled, at all, after a person you discovered in your research?

KH: Amelia's mother suffers from what is now known as rheumatoid arthritis. Many believe that particular disease is aggravated by a number of things, including stress and damp, chilly weather. Anyone who has been ill with a cold or the flu knows it is difficult to maintain a sense of humor, an interest in others, to motivate yourself when you're feeling miserable. Amelia's mother constantly felt miserable. In addition, she must have been terribly disappointed with her husband's choices, so different from ones she would have made. Yet society at that time judged her by her husband's decisions. She was a vain woman who must have placed a high value on her social position as a captain's wife. Imagine how mortified she must have felt at her husband's disgrace. This was a time when women rarely achieved greatness in their own right. They measured their worth by the power and status of their husbands. Perhaps knowing this makes Mrs. Martin's sadness easier to understand.

RFA & LMP: What was the most interesting detail you discovered about life in Delaware in 1861? Did that detail help shape the story?

KH: The envelope filled with small pox scabs sent to The Smyrna Times really startled me. I thought terrorism and germ warfare were twentieth century tactics. It surprised me to find such weapons being used in the nineteenth century. I mention the incident in A Light In The Storm though I don't dwell on it.

RFA & LMP: In the Epilogue you write that Amelia and Daniel were married but that they spent very little time living together. Why did you make that decision about their lives?

KH: Amelia is very closely based on Ida Lewis, the female light keeper from Rhode Island who kept the Lime Rock light during the mid-nineteenth century. Ida Lewis also married but lived only briefly with her husband. I have no explanation for Ida's arrangement, nor do I offer one in my book for Amelia.

RFA & LMP: What is one question you would like to ask your readers after they have finished reading A Light In The Storm: The Civil War Diary Of Amelia Martin?

KH: Why do you think this country fought the Civil War? I had always believed the War was fought over the issue of slavery, and at one level, it certainly was. But in fact, Abraham Lincoln did not declare war on the Confederacy because of the issue of slavery, or even the spread of slavery. Our country found itself engaged in civil war because the southern states had done the unforgivable, they had dared to break up the Union. The Civil War was fought to bring those rebel states back into the Union where they belonged. The Constitution would take care of the slavery issue, but first and foremost, the unification of the Union had to be upheld.

RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Amelia's diary?

KH: Even in a time when women were regarded as weak, inferior, second class human beings, there were courageous women defying those narrow views. Amelia Martin's life was filled with adversity and challenges. It is possible not only to survive such difficulties but to transcend them. Amelia transcended the complications of her personal life, the country's troubles, and the limitations of nineteenth century gender expectations to become a productive, compassionate, educated, evolved human being.

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, Family Life, Jobs, Careers, Work, Survival, Understanding Self and Others
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