For Encinitas author Nancy Johnson, Civil War letters written by her great-great-uncles not only transported her back in time to a defining era in the United States, but also inspired a lifelong love of history and became the catalyst for a trilogy of books.
All three of her chapter books, written for young readers, tell of the war from a child’s point of view with battles as a backdrop to her story lines.
“I tried to be honest, and yes, there is bloodshed in the stories, but I don’t dwell on it,” Johnson explained. “Instead, I stress the heroism and the part these brave people played.”
Her latest title, “Shenandoah: Daughter of the Stars” (eFrogPress, 2014) centers on three young people who struggle to follow their dreams as the Civil War devastates their homeland and their way of life in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Hannah, who remains loyal to the Union, finds her true love in a Confederate colonel; Willy, Hannah’s headstrong brother, rebels against his family’s values and joins an outlaw raider band; and Charlie, a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute joins other cadets to fight against the Union Army in the Battle of New Market.
“They are three young people who know each other and really like each other, as different as they are,” said Johnson of her teenage characters.
The story line blends history with fiction in the setting of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, which Johnson visited to accurately describe it in her book.
Stopping in Lexington on May 15, 1997, on the Shenandoah River, by coincidence that day the cadets at VMI were staging a dramatic re-enactment honoring those killed in the Battle of New Market in 1864.
Afterward the cadets invited Johnson and her husband to tour VMI; then they visited Stonewall Jackson’s original home. “I was totally immersed in the Civil War,” recalled Johnson. The experience was moving and inspired her to write the last book in her Civil War series.
Johnson’s first Civil War-themed book, “My Brothers’ Keeper” (Down East Books, Maine, 1997) takes young Joshua Parish from the farmlands of New York State to the battlefields of Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Appomattox. The story is based on Johnson’s ancestors’ letters, now treasured and kept in a safety deposit box, that were read to her as a child.
The second book, “A Sweet Sounding Place” (Down East Books, Maine, 2007) tells the story of an African American boy from Boston who follows his uncle south to fight at Fort Wagner in the Okefenokee swamp in Florida.
A retired teacher who taught fourth, fifth and sixth grades in Encinitas, Johnson commented that young children in California generally do not have an understanding of the Civil War the way that children in the North, East or the South do.
“You can visit a small town in New England and there will be a statue to a Civil War veteran,” she said, but it is not seen in California. “I thought the children out here needed to know a little about it.”
Johnson, whose work has been acclaimed for its authenticity, recently made a presentation at the Authors’ Salon, a Hera Hub event in Carlsbad moderated by Linda Scott, founder of Efrog Press.
“Her presentation was both informative and delightful,” said Scott. Johnson spoke to the audience about how her mother first told her about the Civil War, her in-depth research for her novels, historical accuracy and how a family’s treasured artifacts can make history come alive for children.