Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D.: What was the best part of writing So Far from Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl?
Barry Denenberg: The best part was making sure that my original vision of Mary Driscoll stayed true throughout the writing process. Many books for children and young readers portray the main character as literate, articulate, sensitive, and kind. Throughout American history, however, millions had no time for such luxuries. I wanted Mary to accurately reflect the immigrant experience set on the complicated stage of the Lowell textile mills. I wanted her to be someone who was too busy making sure there was a roof over her head and food to eat to care about books and poetry, too worried about surviving to be manifestly sensitive, and too overwhelmed by her new surroundings to freely speak her mind. Mary can and does speak and is and can be kind — but only when pressed by life's experiences.
RFA and LMP: How did visiting the Lowell mills with your daughter help you in writing Mary Driscoll's diary?
BD: Seeing the canals and buildings, hearing the deafening noise coming from the work looms inside, visiting the still-standing boardinghouses, and getting a first-hand sense of the planned physical characteristics of the town solidified a great many things in my mind and helped me be more confident in my understanding of the time and place. Being with my seven-year-old daughter, Emma, and seeing how much she enjoyed this walk through history inspired me.
RFA and LMP: Your books are always praised for the careful research that has become such an important part of your work. In doing the research for So Far from Home, what did you learn that surprised you most?
BD: I learned what it meant to be an immigrant: the profound suffering that drove you from your homeland, the wrenching decisions that had to be made if anyone was to survive, the hardships endured during the voyages over, and the fear and loneliness that must have been, at times, unbearable. For the first time I realized what this country has meant to so many for so many years.
RFA and LMP: Mary Driscoll's experiences in America changed her. She becomes more confident and even courageous, but many of the hopes and dreams she had for her American experience are dashed. By the end of the diary, is Mary still hopeful? What keeps her from being bitter?
BD: Is Mary still hopeful? Frankly, about people, yes. About life, I don't think so.What keeps her from being bitter? Mary has no time to be bitter. She just survives from one day to the next as best she can.
RFA and LMP: If you could ask youngsters who have read So Far from Home just one question about the book, what would that question be?
BD: What do you think and feel at the end of the epilogue when you learn that Mary died just two years after the diary ends when she is only seventeen?
RFA and LMP: How did writing So Far from Home differ from writing your other Dear America book When Will This Cruel War Be Over?
BD: I became more personally and emotionally involved in creating and crafting the main character. Mary Driscoll comes to America at a time when a great deal is happening: immigration and the treatment of immigrants, the Lowell textile mills and the beginning of the real-life effects of the industrial revolution on the workers, and the journey of young girls from their homes to new lives of relative independence. These things are still with us today. While writing and researching So Far from Home, I was moved by Mary Driscoll and how she made her way. Hers is, to me, an heroic story. With the exception of Voices from Vietnam, this is the book I care most deeply about.
RFA and LMP: What would you like readers of Mary Driscoll's diary to learn from her experiences?
BD: Appreciate what you have — many have less.
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.