Meet the Biographer: Mary Cronk Farrell

1386116620A former journalist, Mary Cronk Farrell has published both fiction and nonfiction books about strong women for middle grade and young adult readers. This week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about her latest book, Pure Grit, a collective biography of American Army and Navy nurses who experienced POW camp in the Philippines during World War II.

Kidsbiographer: You were only to able to speak with one of the nurses mentioned in Pure Grit; you interviewed the relatives of others to learn about the women’s experiences during World War II. What was the greatest challenge of working with your subject’s family members during the research process?

MCF: The most difficult thing was finding the relatives! I felt like a detective on the internet following any clues I could find as to the names and locations of the nurses’ children and grandchildren, and then trying to locate them.

Kidsbiographer: Pure Grit contains information not only about the nurses’ experiences, but about the war in the Pacific. What sort of research did you do to learn this chapter of military history?

MCF: To learn the facts of the military history surrounding the Japanese invasion of the Philippines and the following battles, I mainly relied on books. There are a lot of books written on the topic, as well as some articles.

Kidsbiographer: While writing Pure Grit and combing through letters, diary entries, and interviews, you must have unearthed all sorts of interesting – and disturbing – tidbits and anecdotes. What was the most intriguing story that didn’t make it into the final draft?

MCF: One of the stories that had to be cut from the final draft of the book was indeed disturbing. It showed all too graphically the inhumane conditions the nurses endured in prison camp. The prisoners at Los Ban᷈os were slowly dying of starvation, and yet they could see bananas and other edible plants right outside the fence.  One young man had been sneaking out at night to get food. When the Japanese guards caught him returning one morning, crawling back under the fence surrounding Los Ban᷈os, they shot and wounded him. Though camp leaders argued that according to international law a prisoner could not be executed if returning to camp, only is caught trying to escape, the Japanese soldiers would not allow doctors or nurses to give the wounded man medical aid. They held everyone back for an hour and a half while they left the young man bleeding on the ground. Then they dragged him off to a clump of bamboo and executed him.

Kidsbiographer: Although Pure Grit contains plenty of facts, the book unfolds at a clipping pace. How did you structure the narrative to make it as gripping as it is informative?

MCF: Creating the outline for the book proposal was actually the most difficult part of the project, as that is when I worked out how I was going to structure the book. Though I presented the material in a straightforward linear fashion following the historical timeline of events, I wanted the book to have a narrative story arc, which I laid out in the outline. In the writing, I worked hard on the flow of words, sentences, and paragraphs to keep the narrative alive and moving.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response to Pure Grit you’ve received thus far?

MCF: The most gratifying response has been from relatives of the nurses who have loved the book. In addition, I received a wonderful compliment from a man whose father had been one of the men captured in the Philippines and spent the war in prison and slave labor camps.

He wrote: “You tell the stories, particularly your use of short, simple sentences, much like the diaries of the noble souls who wrote in small characters on small pieces of paper when time and ink and life itself was starved of all beauty and abundance.  Yet there is beauty in your narrative because it is the same beauty that remains when life is starved of everything: the beauty of faith and hope and charity, the beauty of courage and determination. Most people will never have an opportunity to converse with someone who endured the ordeal you have written about, but the tenor of the captives’ experience and the way they usually describe it (when they can bear to talk about it); indeed, the way they also survived the ordeal of life after liberation resonates through your narrative.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

MCF: My next book, its working title Fannie Never Flinched, is due out in February 2016.  It’s another amazing true story about courage and dedication, this time a biography of one women, Fannie Sellins, who was an incredible labor organizer in the early 1900’s garment industry, coal fields, and steel mills. Like the POW nurses, her strength was imbued by her compassion. Unfortunately, she did not survive, but died in a hail of bullets on the picket line of a Pennsylvania coal strike.


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