Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aviator, Nurse, Soldier, Spy--Reflections on Women's History Month from author Marissa Moss

March 10 - Today's post provided by Marissa Moss

I love stumbling on little-known stories that grab my imagination and sense of history.  Those are the stories I turn into books, the tales of courage and achievement against the odds that deserve to be widely known.  Is it a coincidence that many of these undiscovered gems are about women? 

            Women have mostly been absent from the grand epic of history.  The ones that are recognized are an elite few, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Marie Curie.  Much more fascinating to me are the ordinary women doing extraordinary things.

            Maggie Gee is one such woman.   I found her in a local newspaper story about WWII veterans, published naturally on veteran’s day.  I didn’t know that women had flown warplanes in WWII and it seemed like an important story for kids (and adults) to know about. 

President Obama signing the order to give the WASP
the Congressional Medal of Honor.

            I looked Maggie up in the phone book, called her and asked for an interview.  That interview and the many conversations that followed became SKY HIGH:  THE TRUE STORY OF MAGGIE GEE.  What impressed me about Maggie was her drive, her optimism, her courage.  She didn’t see barriers, but opportunities.  Sure, there was discrimination against her, both as a woman, and as a Chinese-American, but she barely mentioned such problems when she talked about her life.  Although her mother had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married Maggie’s father, a Chinese immigrant, that didn’t deter her from working as a welder on Liberty ships during the war, nor from encouraging her daughter to join the Women’s Army Service Pilots.  After the WASP were disbanded, Maggie went on to charge through more doors, becoming a physicist and working on weapon systems at the Lawrence Livermore labs, another job that was rare for a woman, let alone an Asian-American woman.
            I thought of Maggie’s grit, her enthusiasm for taking risks and following her dreams, when I started looking for a Civil War story.  I wanted to find a woman who had made similar daring choices, but I wasn’t sure where to look.   So I read widely, about both the North and the South.  I learned that more than 400 women had disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers for one side or the other.  Could one of those women be the story I wanted?

            I plowed through books about nurses, soldiers, spies, but they all lacked some essential characteristic.  Some were there to be with a husband, brother, father, or fiancé.  Some were adventurous, but not particularly patriotic or admirable.  Very few cared about the issue of slavery.

            Sorting through all these women, I found one that seemed promising.  The first book I read about her didn’t tell me much, but it gave me enough of a sense that I wanted to learn more.  When I saw she’d written her own memoir of her soldiering life, that I could hear in her own voice her motives and intentions, it was like finding a treasure trove. 

            That woman was Sara Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson.  She was everything I’d hoped for – she had integrity, bravery, loyalty to the Union.  As a bonus, she wrote movingly about the horrors and wrongs of slavery.  But there was more.   Edmonds was the only woman to successfully petition the government after the war for status as a veteran.  She wanted her charge of desertion changed to an honorable discharge, and she wanted a pension for her years of service.  Suffering from malaria she’d caught in the Virgina peninsula campaign early in the war, she needed medical care she couldn’t afford without it.

            It took several years and two separate acts of Congress, but Edmonds received the legal recognition she so richly deserved.  Men she’d served with testified on her behalf, praising her steadiness under fire, her work as a battlefield nurse, a general’s adjutant, a postmaster, and even a spy. 

            Hers was a great story, a vast canvas that covered many of the pivotal battles of the war.  Now that I’d found my subject, I had to shape this big life into a book.  And a short book at that.  I first wrote about Sara Emma Edmonds for a picture book, choosing to showcase her first spy mission, one emblematic event to stand for such a complicated life.  That text became NURSE, SOLDIER, SPY, beautifully illustrated by John Hendrix, and published this April by Abrams. 

            As pleased as I was with the picture book, there was so much more to say about Sara than could fit in that constrained format.  I went on to write a middle-grade novel, with the luxury of chapter upon chapter to unfold the many facets of Sara.   I could show her tenderness as a nurse, her bravery as a postmaster on lonely roads known for ambushes, her fierce loyalty to her fellow-soldiers in battle, her quick-thinking as a spy.  And I could show the loneliness and stress that her disguise cost her, the burden of living a lie on a deeply ethical and honest person.

            Sara had to dress as a man to serve the country she loved.  Maggie could enlist, but had her opportunities curbed because she was a woman.  Women in the military today aren’t officially allowed “in combat,” but since they’re in active combat zones, they face the same risks as the men without the same possibilities for promotion and recognition.  One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, woman are still living little known stories that we’ll only learn about later.  Someday we’ll read about how courageous and capable they’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq.  As they’ve always been, whenever they’ve been given the chance or secretly taken it.

            I dedicated NURSE, SOLDIER, SPY to Maggie.  It seemed fitting.  But I could have dedicated it to the women everywhere, throughout the years, who have defied stereotypes and proven themselves to be as brave and bold as the men around them.
Editor's Note:
Want to know more about California author and illustrator, Marissa Moss?  Check out her website,

Marissa Moss is also the author of Mighty Jackie: The Strikeout Queen, a true story of a young girl who pitched against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and Brave Harriet, the story of Harriet Quimby, the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel.


  1. Thank you, Marissa, for your interesting and informative book on Maggie Gee. I am looking forward to reading your books on both Maggie and Sarah Edmonds.

  2. Hi Marissa, thanks so much for introducing me to Maggie Gee and Sarah Edmonds, I loved both bios.

    Its nice to see biographies of not so well known women who made history.

  3. Thanks for a great post Marissa. I was happy to meet you and Maggie Gee at the party you gave in honor of the wonderful folks at Tricycle Press. It was a great party and an honor to meet Maggie Gee who proudly told me about the book you had written about her life. It is a wonderful story that needed to be told. Now I look forward to reading about Sarah Edmonds!

  4. I'm a big fan of Marissa's book Mighty Jackie, and this new one about a Civil War heroine looks like a must-have.

    For those who didn't check out Marissa's website, do! ( Lots of wonderful things there.