An Interview With Kathryn Lasky About A Time for Courage
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: President Wilson's presence is felt throughout A Time for Courage. What did you find out about him that surprised you most? Was he so involved in foreign affairs at the time that he felt women's suffrage was insignificant, or did he really view women as second class citizens not deserving of the right to vote?
Kathryn Lasky: I think he was completely oblivious. Viewing women as second class citizens was the norm. You might think of this in the same way that people tolerated racism or anti-Semitism. For Wilson to entertain the notion of women voting would have been a quantum leap. He was a very smart man in many ways but he had no moral vision.
RFA and EST: It is interesting that Mrs. Wilson seems to go along with her husband's view of women. What kind of First Lady was Ellen Axson Wilson? What causes did she champion, if not the right to vote for women?
KL: I found this one quote from her that was a real turn off. "I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me." I did read somewhere that she worked to improve the "Negro slums". Needless to say, this lady bored me and I really did not want to spend that much time on her seeing as my interests lay elsewhere.
RFA and EST: The harsh treatment of the suffragettes in Occoquan prison was shocking. If your readers wanted to find out more about this incident, are there some sources you might recommend?
KL: I got most of my material for this book from the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe which is strictly a research library entirely devoted to women's studies. So it is a real treasure trove. But, of course, you can't really check anything out. However, some things I think one could track down elsewhere. One of the best books was one called Jailed for Freedom by Doris Stevens. This was really like a diary of her imprisonment at Occoquan.
RFA and EST: George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." What are some of the lessons we should learn from this period in American history?
KL: Oh boy, what a good quote! Aren't we repeating so much now? The lessons? The lessons seem quite simple to me: don't forget the Bill of Rights and don't forget the Ten Commandments. If people would remember these it should take you through any period in American History. The lessons are equality and to treat others regardless of gender, color, or creed as you would wish to be treated. The thing that I think we have to remember is that when times get rough, people look for scapegoats and this is the beginning of human rights violations.
RFA and EST: You do a very good job of balancing the events in Washington, D.C. with those abroad connected with World War I. What challenges did you face in trying to combine these two historical events?
KL: Actually none. But this is what made the year of the book, 1917, so intensely appealing. So much was happening: the picket line, America's entry into WWI, the fascinating collision between World War and women's rights. I mean why should a woman want to send off a son to fight for democracy abroad when there was none at home? The irony of that situation alone was enough to really set off a writer's nerves! This was an incredibly rich year in American history. Weaving it together was rather easy.
RFA and EST: You have said that setting is so important in your books that it is almost a character. How important is setting in A Time for Courage?
KL: Well, when Scholastic first asked me to do a book about Women's Suffrage, I have to tell you I was a bit stymied in terms of the setting because, at that point, I really had done no research. I only knew that a few significant milestones in terms of women's conferences had occurred in upstate New York, but they were spread over a long period of time. Nothing hung together for me in terms of a real narrative for a book. You know there was once a famous play called "Six Characters in Search of An Author". This was "One Author in Search of a Setting", and some characters to boot. This story came together for me when I found out the events that had occurred in Washington, D.C., during that incredible winter of freezing cold and boiling anger. So I guess you would say that the setting was darned important to me.
RFA and EST: There are elements of your own life reflected in Kathleen Bowen's diary. Would you share with us some of the autobiographical elements in this novel?
KL: My mother was a great advocate of women's rights, a member of the League of Women's Voters and lifelong member of Planned Parenthood and an advocate of a woman's rights in terms of reproductive issues. She was also a founding member of Common Cause in the state of Indiana. There are subtler elements in the book that do reflect my life. Most certainly I did write the character of Kat from the perspective of being the youngest sibling in a very dynamic and brainy family and sometimes feeling kind of left out or just on the edge of the action because of being "the youngest." It's a hard position to be in. So a lot of the emotion in the book, I think, comes from that.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.