My Inspiration for Elsie Mae Has Something to Say by Nancy J. Cavanaugh
So, who ever heard of the Okefenokee Swamp? Well about twenty years ago, I hadn’t; but today I’m celebrating pub day for my book, Elsie Mae Has Something to Say, which takes place in the Okefenokee Swamp in the 1930’s.
So how do you go from not even knowing about a place to writing an historical novel about it? It all began with a television show. I know, I know, teachers, librarians, and parents don’t necessarily want authors to share with young readers that sometimes authors get really good ideas from watching TV, but for me, with this book, it’s the truth. In the mid-nineties, I happened to stumble upon a television program which showed a scientist studying alligators. Now this scientist wasn’t just studying them by taking photographs and writing notes, he was getting up close and personal with them. He was submerged into water up to his neck, and he just happened to be doing this in the Okefenokee Swamp. After I finished being both amazed and terrified at what this man was doing, I became curious. Okefenokee Swamp? How come I had never heard of this place with the really, cool sounding name?
I immediately headed off to the public library and went straight to the children’s section where, in my opinion, I always find the best books, full of plenty of interesting facts and lots of illustrations and photographs. To my dismay, I didn’t find any Okefenokee Swamp books. There were a few books that mentioned the Okefenokee, but nothing with the kind of information I wanted to find. So, I knew I’d have to settle for searching the shelves in the adult section. I expected to find all kinds of dusty, old encyclopedia type books with tiny print and hardly any illustrations or photographs, but I was pleasantly surprised. What I found was a handful of books written by people who had grown up and lived on islands in the Okefenokee Swamp. These people called themselves swampers and had all kinds of fascinating stories about their unique way of living off the land in the Okefenokee Swamp.
I spent the next several months pouring over these books, amazed at the history and folklore of this mysterious place. One book was written by a scientist named Francis Harper who had spent many years of his life studying the flora and fauna of the Okefenokee. During the years he spent in and around the swamp, he began to become more and more interested in the people of the swamp. And so, his scientific studies began to include more and more stories about the swampers and their way of life. Besides everything he recorded in his notes about the swamp and the swampers, he took a great deal of photographs documenting the life of these Okefenokee folk. It was Harper’s book that really became my inspiration for writing my own story set in the Okefenokee.
One particular piece of history Harper recorded was the fact that during the 1930’s there was a shipping company that wanted to build a canal through the Okefenokee. Harper and his wife, Jean, who had also come to adore the swamp and the swampers the way her husband did, wanted to protect the swamp from this kind of development. Jean used her connection to President Roosevelt (she had been a tutor for his children at one time) to write a letter to him asking him for help in saving the swamp. Her letter and the efforts of some of the swamper families were instrumental in getting President Roosevelt to declare the Okefenokee a National Wildlife Refuge, protecting it forever from destructive development. This was certainly a victory for the Harpers and the swamper families, but it did not come without a cost. Because of the Okefenokee’s National Wildlife Refuge status and the regulations that came along with it, the swamper families eventually were not able to continue with their way of life, hunting and fishing and living off the land.
I used this slice of history to create my middle grade novel, Elsie Mae Has Something to Say, where Elsie Mae, a spunky eleven-year-old girl, takes it upon herself to save the swamp for her family who has called it home for years. Though Elsie is full of more spunk than most swampers, she finds several obstacles in her way as she endeavors to be the hero she’s always dreamed of being – hog bandits stealing hogs from the swamper homesteads, a cousin named Henry James who’s practicing to become a traveling preacher like his daddy getting in her way with his “hallelujah this” and his “hallelujah that,” and a dog named Huck that gets himself in trouble in the worst ways. And just like the true account of the cost that came when the Okefenokee Swamp was saved, in the end, Elsie Mae finds that being a hero costs her so much she’s not sure it’s all worth it.
In addition to the reading I did about the Okefenokee, I took two author field trips to visit the swamp. It was wonderful to experience firsthand the surroundings I had read so much about. I also had the opportunity to talk with a few people who had grown up in and around the Okefenokee. They were such a wonderful resource for me in terms of getting the details of Elsie Mae’s story just right.
It’s my hope that Elsie Mae Has Something to Say will give readers a glimpse of what swamper life was like in the 1930’s and show just how wonderful and mysterious the Okefenokee is. In addition, I hope readers will gain an appreciation for the people in our past who have cared enough about places like the Okefenokee Swamp to take action and stand up and save them.
Nancy J. Cavanaugh is the acclaimed author of Always, Abigail, a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, and This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, a Florida State Library Book Award winner, an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts Award winner, and a nominee for numerous state awards, including Florida Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award and Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Award. School Library Journal calls her third novel, Just Like Me, “A charming and refreshingly wholesome coming-of-age story . . . Filled with slapstick humor and fast-paced action.”
Cavanaugh’s newest book, Elsie Mae Has Something to Say, tells the story of a young girl’s endeavor to save the Okefenokee Swamp. This historical fiction, full of adventure and mystery, takes place in the 1930’s and gives readers a chance to experience a unique and unusual time and place in history.
Nancy and her husband and daughter enjoy winters in sunny Florida and eat pizza in Chicago the rest of the year. You can find her online at www.nancyjcavanaugh.com and on Twitter as @nancyjcavanaugh.