Jim Murphy: Doing Teresa's diary was a great deal of fun. First, I wanted to put in as much humor as possible. History often reads as a hard and grim experience. But people are remarkably resilient and funny, even when the going is very hard. Second, I decided to play with the diary form, which is why I had Netta adding comments and why Teresa grumps about the "rules" for writing a diary. Finally, I tried to mentally take this trip with Teresa. Every morning I would ask myself: Okay, what happens next? This is a very different approach from what I do with my nonfiction. With nonfiction, I've done my research and know the sequence of events from start to finish before I put a word on paper.
RFA & LMP: Your mother's ancestors came to America from Sicily as the Viscardi family did. What insights did you glean about your own ancestors?
JM: I think my ancestors had to be enormously strong emotionally and very courageous. Think about leaving behind all of your friends and relatives, the neighborhood you've known all your life, and heading into an unknown future, one that comes with absolutely no guarantees. Even the quietest, most reserved individuals had to possess a fierce determination to survive and to better themselves.
RFA & LMP: The Viscardi family sacrificed much to be a part of the utopian community of Opportunity. What was the appeal of such communities in America during the 19th century?
JM: People sought out utopian communities for security. The industrial revolution was changing the face of America. Factories were replacing farms as the largest employer of people; people streamed to the cities to find work and also found poor housing and high crime rates; waves of new immigrants were pouring in and competing for jobs; there were no laws to protect workers or to make sure they received a fair wage. These and many other factors made people yearn for a slower pace, economic security, and peaceful coexistence.
RFA & LMP: If a young reader wanted to read one or two nonfiction books to go along with the diary, what titles would you suggest?
JM: La Storia by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale gives a great overview of the Italian-American experience. Women of the West by Cathy Luchetti and Carol Olwell talks about the experience of traveling and living in the untamed West and includes extensive quotes from actual diaries, journals, and letters. Finally, Robert Fogarty's All Things New takes a look at the more than 160 utopian societies that sprung up in America between 1860 and 1920. All three books have extensive bibliographies, in case you want to do some detective work of your own.
RFA & LMP: Do you think today's girls have as much adventure in their lives as Teresa did?
JM: I don't think many of us face the same sort of physical adventures our ancestors did, at least not on a daily basis. That doesn't mean there aren't adventures to be had today. A move to a different town or school gives us new places to explore, new people to meet; a lost pet means we have to organize a careful search; baby-sitting requires looking out for dangers a young child can't foresee; a car crash or fire demands that we get help immediately.
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi?
JM: That life is made up of many kinds of journeys. Some are physical, like moving from one home to another, but most are interior journeys of the heart or soul. The important thing is to face each with as positive an attitude as possible and to try to learn as much about yourself and others as you can along the way. Oh, yes, and have fun while you are experiencing all of these things.
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.