Jim Murphy: Research for My Face to the Wind began with trips to a number of public libraries near my home where I found many general reference books about 19th century schools in states west of the Mississippi. In addition to learning individual state requirements for a teacher, what was in a typical curriculum, and what a normal day in class might have been like, I scoured the bibliographies for firsthand accounts left by actual teachers. These let me get inside the classrooms to 'experience' what a brand new teacher went through day in and day out. I also studied interior and exterior photographs of old school houses and visited as many surviving examples of them as I could.
Was teaching and going to school an adventure? I was astonished by the severe conditions students and teachers had to endure. Schools were often made of rough timbers or sod with dirt floors and one or two tiny windows. Winter winds whistled through the classroom; rain dripped down on students. Many schools had no desks and the only texts were the ones a teacher either had or could borrow from parents; pencils, rulers, chalk and notebooks were luxuries. One teacher even had her lessons disrupted when a rattlesnake dropped through the sod roof and landed on the pot belly stove!
RFA & EST: Why did you choose Broken Bow, Nebraska as the location for Sarah Jane's story?
JM: My research had given me a number of states where Sarah Jane might teach. I knew I wanted Sarah Jane to be in an unsettled, primitive area where everyday life was a struggle; I also wanted her close enough to a big city that she might be tempted to abandon her new home and its hardships. A history about railroads in the United States talked about the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and how its rumored plans to build tracks through Custer County, Nebraska, prompted people to settle there long before the line was in place. I searched for histories of the towns along this line and Broken Bow seemed the most interesting and appropriate to me, so that's where I decided to set the story.
RFA & EST: Are there any lessons to be learned from what went on in the prairie schools of the 1880s that should be considered in today's classrooms?
JM: One interesting thing was that students had very different skills and talents, and learned at varied rates. One six-year-old might learn to read with little difficulty, while another — who happened to be very talented at adding and subtracting — struggled to remember the alphabet and learn to read. Teachers back then seemed to take this in stride and found ways to help students who lagged behind (often by having more skilled students tutor them). The other thing was just how vital it was to maintain order in the classroom. Teachers had to find a way to make rowdy, disruptive students behave so the rest of the class could concentrate on their studies. Most teachers found creative ways to keep students in line, though I did read about one Texas teacher who was faced with a very large, very aggressive boy and finally got him to settle down after bringing a six-shooter to class (not that I'm suggesting modern teachers use this technique!).
RFA & EST: Other than Sarah Jane herself, who is your favorite character in the book? Why?
JM: I have a number of characters that I am very fond of but my absolute favorite is Johnnie Hatter, the eccentric hermit who goes around talking to himself all the time. At first I saw him as the town 'crazy," the person who tried to live on the vast, empty Plains but just couldn't handle the hardship and solitude and so he went off the deep end. But as I wrote and revised the story, I began to see him as an individual who struggled against severe emotional problems and yet still managed to find a place for himself in the town. He lives on his own, manages to find enough to eat, and even cares for a three-legged dog.
RFA & EST: Sarah Jane seems ambivalent in how she feels about Reverend Lauter. She is moved by his oratory but is put off by his rigidity. Even Miss Kizer seems unsure of him herself. How do you see Reverend Lauter?
JM: Reverend Lauter is my least favorite character and yet he's really not a bad man. He has a severe and set view of how he and other people should live and act, which is derived from an overly literal interpretation of the Bible. He holds himself to this code and expects others to fall in line even if their interpretation of the Holy Book is different. Despite his outlook on life, I ended up respecting him a great deal. He could have softened his approach and taken on a permanent position as head of a new church in one of the towns on his circuit; instead he holds true to his rather harsh values even though it means standing alone in the world and missing out on a certain kind of happiness (in his relationship with Miss Kizer).
RFA & EST: In many ways Sarah Jane's story is a testament to the power of a teacher. Yet, she is powerless in many ways as she tries to deal with Mr. Gaddis. Even today teachers bemoan their lack of power. Do you believe teachers have power?
JM: Teachers are among the most powerful people in the world — more so than wealthy individuals, presidents, and movie stars. In fact, only parents have more real power. Why? Because a teacher who can get their students enthusiastic about a specific subject or about learning in general will change and affect the way those kids think and act for the rest of their lives.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Sarah Jane's diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
JM: I would have readers put themselves in Sarah Jane's position — alone in the world, in a harsh and not always friendly environment, scared and worried about what to do — and then ask them what they would do if in her position. The answer I've shaped in my story is just one possible solution, and may not have even been the best one.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price?
JM: To never give up. We often find ourselves in hard, unpleasant, and unhappy situations, but if we are determined enough to seek out help and support, there are usually ways to succeed.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.