This summer marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, the Great War, the War to End all Wars. Across Europe, commemorations have taken place, and will continue to take place over the next few years, remembering the soldiers who died, the fields and towns left mangled and destroyed, the harsh brutalities of what is often called the first modern war–a war that can only be considered Great in terms of scale.
There are myriad stories in war time, stories that, like history, repeat themselves from generation to generation, war to war. Perhaps that is why war stories have a perpetual fascination to so many people. There is a timeless quality to the conflicts and to the heroes that they make.
But I have not written a war story. At least not in the conventional sense of the term. But war, any war, has stories on the home front as well as the battle field. There are heroes keeping the home fires burning, keeping the wheels of industry turning, sending love and prayers and dry socks to their husbands, sons, and sweethearts on the front lines. Perhaps because I am a woman, or perhaps because I like the unsung, these are the stories of war that fascinate me, and World War I gave us particularly interesting stories at home.
I didn’t set out to write a World War I story when I first conceived of my new book SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, which releases this week. The story started, for me, with the local legend of a dance-hall girl in the Colorado gold rush, nearly sixty years before the US entered the Great War. Here is her legend:
Silverheels was renowned for her beauty, but in the winter of 1861, the town of Buckskin Joe was hit by a devastating small pox epidemic. Most people fled the stricken town, but the beautiful Silverheels stayed and nursed the sick and dying miners. Eventually, however, she herself contracted the disease. She survived it, but the pockmarks had scarred her face, destroying her legendary beauty. The miners collected gold to support her, but when they went to her cabin, she had disappeared. They never found her, and they never knew her real name, but the named the nearby mountain after her, so that her love and sacrifice would not be forgotten.
I’ve known the legend of Silverheels for as long as I can remember, being a Colorado native. I could have written a story just about Silverheels–a retelling or re-imagining of the legend, but I decided not to. Because when I heard this story a few years ago, not having thought about it in many years, the story bothered me in ways it never had before. It got me thinking about all the quiet, behind-the-scenes way that women are heroes. It got me thinking about how seldom or how little women have been acknowledged in their own right. After all, if those miners loved and appreciated Silverheels so much, why didn’t they even bother to learn her real name in all that time she was dancing and being beautiful for them?
It got me thinking about all the ways women are strong, and how many of the things they do are undervalued by society, so that their strength goes unacknowledged. (Anyone who has spent the day trying to clean the house, do the laundry, got kids to and from school and sports and girl scouts, make sure their homework is done while also keeping up with a toddler, can attest to the hypocrisy of stay-at-home moms aren’t working! It makes me tired just to think about it.) Not that Silverheels did all that. But surely some women in Colorado have done worthwhile things–and yet Mount Silverheels, Colorado’s 99th tallest mountain, is the only mountain in the tallest hundred named for a woman. There are dozens named for men–governors, explorers, war heroes, even law-breakers (Zebulon Pike’s illegal border crossing into Mexican territory got his name on a mountain!)
So thinking about the legend of Silverheels got me a little fired up. I wanted to write a story about all the ways women are strong–all the things women have done through history that go unsung, but are really quite amazing. All the reasons why maybe we should have more mountains named after them.
Enter World War I, stage left. This is what I love about writing historical fiction. When I get an idea about a theme or an issue I really want to write about, I know I can find a time and place in history that will really highlight that issue. So, as soon as I decided I wanted to write about the many ways women are called upon to be strong, I knew I wanted the story to be set in wartime, when that call becomes even louder than usual. I could have picked any war, but World War I had something special to offer.
During World War I, women in the United States were fighting for the vote, and when Woodrow Wilson finally declared war in 1917, his justification was the need to defend civil rights and liberty in the world. The suffragist movement latched onto that at once, crying out the hypocrisy of defending civil liberties abroad while denying them at home. The perfect setting for talking about women’s rights.
Except I wanted to talk about more than the women who stand out in public demanding their rights. Yes, those women were strong and heroic, but they overshadow all the women whose strength was keeping the home fires burning. Quietly supporting the people they loved and the ideals they believed in.
These are the reasons I decided to set SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS in World War I, and the reasons I decided to write about characters searching for Silverheels, rather than about the legendary dancer herself. These are the strong women and unsung war heroes I wanted to write about–a romantically minded girl faced with hard decisions about standing up for what she believes, an outspoken cynic afraid of love, and the power of love itself, strengthening mothers, wives, daughters, and sons through brutal, confusing times.
The Great War was not the war to end all wars. History has repeated itself. It will again. But I hope we can, on this 100th anniversary of its beginning, remember the power of the human spirit, the strength of good people standing up for what they believe in. I hope we can try again, one hundred years later, to hold those ideals dear, as well as the ideal to end all wars.
Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS releases September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and a professor of anthropology. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.