RESEARCH AS ADVENTURE by Doreen Rappaport
The dictionary defines adventure as engaging in typically hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory. Minus the words, “typically hazardous,” I believe that’s an apt definition of research. As a writer of historical nonfiction, I’m usually on an adventure into someone’s life or the details of an event. I move into different worlds with different customs and values. I’m on a journey into the unknown, a journey of learning.
I have just completed a biography of Jackie Robinson. I chose to write about Jackie Robinson because I perceive him as a one-person civil rights activist. For the last two years I have been involved in reconstructing the details of his personal life, his family, his environment, his friends, and his athletic achievements, etc. I moved back into an era when black achievement was extremely limited, when even an extraordinary athletic talent such as Robinson was not enough to get him into any professional sport, except boxing.
I was a kid when Jackie Robinson was a star, and I loved him. I knew from memory all the stats about his RBIs (runs batted in), number of steals and double plays and bunts, etc. But of course over the years I have forgotten these statistics and have to say, I no longer follow baseball in any serious way. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles, I felt betrayed, and moved on.
Researching this book led me back to my former passion. I became reacquainted with all the players I had known and loved. I didn’t know when I was a kid about Robinson’s struggles that first year in the majors, and actually, in follow-up years, too. Only by doing research did I learn that most Dodgers didn’t want him on the team. When we see the number of black and Latino players, who are so beloved by fans today, it’s hard to believe that that time existed. I also knew nothing about his incredible mother: her dignity, ingenuity, her strength of character, her drive, and her belief in God that helped assure her five children to battle the prejudiced world they grew up in. I never knew how his belief in God had strengthened him in confronting racism.
My research also led me to Jackie’s older brother, Mack, who came in second behind Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics by four-tenths of a second. Perhaps Mack would have beaten Jesse Owens if he’d had enough money to buy himself a new pair of running shoes. I encountered Wendell Smith, sports reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, largest black newspaper then, who was one of many sportswriters who crusaded to integrate major league baseball. Manager Branch Rickey hired Smith as a companion for Robinson that first year, to smooth out any problems he would confront on the road. Smith brought me back to understanding that “heroes” do not act alone. The people who stand behind “heroes” are heroes themselves. Rachel Robinson is one such hero, too. She supported her husband and suppressed her rage about how he was being treated. Like Smith, she is worthy of her own biography.
Only twice have I ever written about someone who was still alive. During my research for Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, I came across an account by Jack Kagan, who at fourteen years of age had participated in the building of a tunnel in the Novogrudok Labor Camp in Poland (now in Belarus), and had escaped with 250 other Jews on the night of September 26, 1943. Writers always look for a great story, and I knew this was one, so I started tracking it down. The Internet proved a great friend for getting additional information but as I was scouring these sites, I kept thinking, “Could Jack Kagan be alive? He was fourteen then. He could be in his eighties. He could be alive. But if he was alive, where did he live now?” Well, only one way to find out–Google him. And on the one hundredth hit, I read that Jack Kagan has spoken at the Jewish Museum in London two years before. I immediately telephoned the Museum and reached the Executive Director who told me, yes, Jack Kagan was very much alive. I explained that I was researching a book on Jewish resistance and had read his book and I wanted to speak to him for more details. “Should I write him a letter first?” “No,” she said. “Just telephone him. He will be delighted to talk with you.”
I did. And for the next year, Jack and I corresponded by email as I reconstructed his story, sending each new draft to him for his approval or corrections, etc. The email correspondence turned into a friendship. Jack and his wife Barbara visited New York and my husband, Bob and I spent a day with him. Then we went to London and spent an evening with him.
All the books I write take me on an adventure and often correct misconceptions I and others have about history. I love the adventure.
Doreen Rappaport is the author of more than fifty books for children, including 42 Is Not Just a Number: The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson, American Hero; Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust; Lady Liberty: A Biography, illustrated by Matt Tavares; and Martin’s Big Words, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Doreen Rappaport lives in upstate New York.