As a young girl growing up in in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a small town near Cleveland, IHS Press author Elizabeth O'Maley, who wrote the new book By Freedom's Light, discovered an interest in both history and writing when she won a fourth grade essay contest sponsored by the local historical society.
A graduate of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, O'Maley worked after college as a school psychologist in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, and Fort Wayne. While her four children were growing up, she taught Sunday school classes at Unity Christ Church and also volunteered as a docent at the Lincoln Museum.
O'Maley took some time recently to answer questions about her new book.
What drew you to write about this subject?
We have relatives in Richmond, Indiana, and always drove by the Levi Coffin house on our way there from our home in Fort Wayne. One day I got a copy of Reminiscences of Levi Coffin from our library. It was the original 1876 edition, and I found it very exciting holding this old book and hearing the voice that spoke from it, while knowing that many of the events described happened right there at that house.
In researching your character, Sarah Caldwell, did you draw upon any real-life people?
Not directly. I did a lot of research on the setting in which I placed Sarah--on the Underground Railroad, Levi Coffin, pioneer life in Indiana, etc. But I created Sarah somewhat apart from the time and place, with basic characteristics and disposition that could just as easily identify a child today. Her personality and background grew in my mind until she became very real to me. Then I dropped her into Newport, Indiana, in 1842 and watched her react to that environment and the people and situations I threw her way.
What did you learn about the Underground Railroad that you did not know before beginning this project?
Well, one surprising fact I encountered was that not one of the runaways that Levi Coffin helped in Newport was ever captured. That's a remarkable record of success considering how ruthlessly they were hunted down. It's also surprising that despite the many threats against him, Levi Coffin was never physically assaulted nor did any of the slave hunters ever gain entry to his home. Maybe that's because he never resorted to violence himself, but instead relied on his quick wits, knowledge of the law, and commanding presence, a self-assured bearing that was probably born of his strong sense of moral authority.
Do you enjoy writing for children and young adults?
Yes. I enjoy trying to communicate my own enthusiasms and viewpoints to children and young adults, and writing is the best medium for me. I'm a terrible speaker!
What are you working on now?
I've been working on a book concerning the collision of the Native American and white cultures in this area from the time of the American Revolution until the Indians were finally removed in the 1840s. The stories of the people and events of that era are full of color and drama. Very exciting stuff, and like Levi Coffin and the Underground Railroad, it happened right here in our own backyard! A bit further afield, I've also been doing some research and thinking about Grace O'Malley, the Irish pirate queen of the sixteenth century.
By Freedom's Light is available in hardback for $15.95 and in paperback for $7.95. The book is available from the Indiana Historical Society's History Market.