Review and Interview: Hattie’s War, by Hilda and Emily Demuth
HATTIE’S WAR, by Hilda and Emily Demuth (Crispin Books, 2014), is a well and beautifully written view of life on the home front during the Civil War. The characters and the story ring true for a reason- the “history” woven throughout this historical novel is well-documented. Hattie’s War reveals more than a glimpse of the amazing role played by Civil War era Milwaukee women in developing the Soldier’s Home. This eventually became what is now known as the Veterans Administration Hospital in Milwaukee. Women made these impressive contributions in spite of the gender-restrictive parameters of society in that era.
Set in Milwaukee, the young Hattie Bigelow is based on an actual preteen girl of the same name whose decisions and choices played a small part in the history woven throughout this novel. From the limited threads of information about her, sisters Hilda and Emily Demuth developed a fully-formed individual, someone I’d love to meet and interview. Since it isn’t possible to chat with Hattie, I directed my questions to the authors.
SB: Welcome, Hilda and Emily, and thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I thoroughly enjoyed HATTIE’S WAR. How did you first become aware of the facts from which this story developed?
HILDA: When we were working on our 2012 novel Plank Road Winter, which features scenes set at the National Soldiers’ Home in Milwaukee, one of our most valuable resources was Patricia Lynch, a member of the West Side Soldiers Aid Society, a group dedicated to preserving the Civil War legacy of Wisconsin and providing aid to modern veterans. With Patricia’s help we learned the fascinating history of the Milwaukee women who raised over $100,000 in 1865 to fund a permanent soldiers’ home.
(One online calculator I used indicates that would be about $2.8 million in today’s economy.)
It was Patricia who first introduced us to Hattie Bigelow, the daughter of one of those women. Hattie was mentioned in a letter sent from Fanny Buttrick, one of the founders of the Soldiers’ Home Society, who was stationed in Memphis with her husband’s regiment: “My love and many thanks to little Hattie Bigelow for her beautiful jar of jelly. It made me quite hungry to look at it.”
SB: I imagine that must have been a really exciting discovery. How much were you able to learn about Hattie’s personality and character as a child before and during your writing, and how did it shape the fiction?
EMILY: United States census reports provided the names and ages and occupations of the members of the Bigelow household. These facts established the ages of Hattie and her younger brother and inspired us to include two boarders in the story, Mr. Jenkins and Miss Taft, who are also based on historical figures.
For the most part, Hattie’s personality is our own creation, thanks to the freedom of writing fiction. Yet Hilda and I both read historian James Marten’s book Children of the Civil War, which was filled with firsthand recollections of children and families in both the North and South. Reading these accounts gave us a better sense of the emotions a child of that era would have experienced.
In Hattie’s time, the roles of men and women, boys and girls, were distinct and well-defined. Though we don’t know whether the real Hattie felt stifled by society’s expectations, we were sure that young readers today would be able to relate to a girl whose independent spirit made her want to be accepted on the base ball field and in the shoe shop.
SB: What did you find to be most surprising about Hattie and the local history you researched?
EMILY: The Bigelows’ boarder, James Jenkins, turned out to be the biggest surprise and the most significant development for our story. Time and time again, as we searched old Milwaukee newspapers, we would come across another reference to “our Mr. Jenkins.” James G. Jenkins, a city attorney, was indeed one of the speakers at the 1864 Election Eve rally for General McClellan’s presidential campaign. We worked this event into our manuscript, allowing Hattie to explore the important notion that people can disagree in their political opinions yet still be friends.
Additionally, Mr. Jenkins was actually one of the founders of baseball in Milwaukee. After we learned that fascinating fact, we pictured a household in which Mr. Jenkins was something like a favorite uncle, playing ball with the neighborhood children.
SB: You’re sisters, and you co-write. Could you tell more about how you handle that? In person, handing the work back and forth, writing alternate chapters, or simultaneously (in person or electronically?)
HILDA: Our first two books, Plank Road Summer and Plank Road Winter, each have two main characters. This made writing easier because we each had a character who was “ours.” Each of us would write the first draft of the chapter from our character’s point of view, and then we exchanged chapters and revised one another’s work. During the months or even years that we worked on our early manuscripts, these chapters would be exchanged and revised so frequently that we sometimes forgot who had written the original scenes.
Writing Hattie’s War together was more challenging because the entire story is told from one character’s point of view. We two authors needed to share a vision of Hattie. We spent considerable time together discussing who she was, what she wanted, and how the scenes each of us wrote would contribute to her development and move the story forward.
SB: That sounds like the ideal definition of collaboration and co-writing! What projects are now underway?
EMILY: I am a regular contributor to The Little Lutheran and The Little Christian magazines. My next book project is A Turn Toward Heaven–a World War II novel, very loosely based on my father-in-law’s experiences as a teenager in Japan. Perhaps we could call it an Odin’s Promise from the other side of the globe. I’ve also got a St. Patrick’s Day book on the back burner.
HILDA: My next project is a novel set in northern Wisconsin in the 1970s. Researching a story set during my own lifetime is quite different from digging in nineteenth-century archives. During a visit to the town of Phillips last summer, I had a delightful time interviewing residents who had been present for major events in the story, and the owners of the bar where my fictional character lived were very hospitable, too.
Although Emily and I are frequently asked about a Plank Road Spring or Plank Road Fall, we have no current plans for another book in that series.
SB: That’s an ambitious agenda, and I look forward to reading your “coming attractions”. Congratulations to you both on Hattie’s War, which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to young readers or anyone interested in the history of the Civil War, Milwaukee, or veterans services. Or anyone who enjoys a great story.
Do you have any appearances scheduled to discuss Hattie’s War?
HILDA: On March 25 I will be speaking at Yorkville Elementary School, which Emily and I attended many years ago. The fifth-grade teacher is doing Hattie’s War as a read-aloud, and I am eager to meet the students and field their comments and questions. Some of the students are descendants of the settlers featured in our Plank Road books, which are set in Yorkville Township, and all of them recognize certain landmarks in those stories.
EMILY: On May 2 we will attend a base ball game with the Milwaukee Cream Citys, a vintage league based on the one established by James G. Jenkins. This event will celebrate vintage base ball, encourage support of the Historic Soldiers’ Home, and honor current veterans. The real Hattie Bigelow would have loved this day.
On Saturday, June 13, we will participate in the Kenosha Civil War Museum’s Salute to Freedom, which will include a Soldiers’ Aid Fair based in part on the 1865 Soldiers’ Home Fair featured in Hattie’s War.
Hilda and Emily, thank you both so much for sharing your “story behind the story”.
For more information, click on the link to the West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society website (www.wssas.org), which includes biographical sketches and other documentation of the fascinating history of Milwaukee during the Civil War era.