Children’s novel is based on Parkite’s aunt’s life during the Civil War
Ever since she was a little girl, author Lisa Trimble Actor, who is also a Park City resident and an associate vice president of advancement for Westminster College, heard stories of her great, great aunt Cordelia "Dill" Dunbar.
Dunbar lived in Jackson, Ohio, during the Civil War when the Confederate Calvary, led by Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, made a stop in her town during what historians call Morgan’s Raid.
The raid, according to various sources, stretched from July 11 though July 26, 1863, as the Calvary, with Union troops in pursuit, passed through Indiana and Ohio.
During the stop, the Confederate soldiers asked Dunbar for some food.
That’s the setting of Actor’s new children’s novel "Rebel Raiders," which was published by Wasteland Press and released last month.
The book is a fictional account of how Dunbar, who was nine at the time, learned the meaning of courage and how it is possible to share similar values with her enemies.
Originally Actor, whose short stories have appeared in Boys’ Life and LadyBug magazines, thought the story would make a good picture book and submitted a draft to an editor that she knew.
"She scribbled all over it and sent it back to me," Actor said during a telephone interview while visiting family in Indiana. "When I read her notes, I realized the story had to be done as a novel. I had no idea how to write a novel, so I set the project aside for four years."
Still, the project continued to nag at her.
"The essence of the tale is that the family had diphtheria and her pa was fighting in Vicksburg, and when the soldiers knocked on the door, little Dill was the only one well enough to get out of bed," the writer said. "When they asked for breakfast, she fixed food for 50 rebels."
Dunbar, who lived well into her 90s, before passing in 1948, used to tell this story to her family, including Actor’s father.
In turn, Actor grew up hearing this story and often wondered if she could be as brave as her great, great aunt.
A year ago, a woman, whom Actor knows in Jackson, sent a letter.
She wrote that she understood Actor was thinking of writing the book and wanted to see it, because she was involved with organizing an event that marked the 150th anniversary of Morgan’s Raid.
"That lit a fire under me and I got the book done," Actor said. "But it was certainly a learning experience."
Actor wrote many manuscripts for novel until she figured out how to let the story flow.
"One thing I learned was how to weave in all details of the back story, but keep the tale moving forward," she said. "I had to do that in a way to keep children interested, so somehow I had to weave it in without putting it down all in one place."
The other things she learned came from hours of research that took her from libraries to the Internet and even to Jackson, Ohio.
"All I started off with was this little piece of a story passed down orally three or four generations through my family, and I knew I couldn’t write a book with just this little tidbit, so I did the research of Morgan’s Raid in greater detail, and what I found astonished me," Actor said. "What I found is that the family stories that have been compiled about the actual activities that occurred are different."
First off, Morgan, who was portrayed as a villain in the North, was really a Southern Gentleman.
"He specifically ordered his men to be kind to the women and children that they came across throughout the raid," Actor said. "When the soldiers would come to the door of these farms and ask for a meal, they were on their best behavior to the point where they even complimented the cook. They also paid for the meal."
Actor found that the rumors that preceded the Calvary weren’t exactly true.
"They were accused of burning down homes and stealing everything, so, people buried their silver and feared for their lives and property," she said. "Yes, they stole from federal and state organizations, including banks, and burned down train depots and bridges and ripped out telegraph lines, but the only things they did steal from civilians were horses.
"They had to because they had to stay ahead of the Union army, which was in pursuit of them," Actor said.
When she sat down to officially start writing the novel, Actor kept seeing Dill as this little girl expecting to see villains in the rebels, but in actuality found tired and hungry men who missed their families.
In addition to learning about the Calvary, Actor learned new things about her aunt.
"I had always heard from my dad that she had a great sense of humor and was always up to something," Actor said. "I wanted to make that character as a child into that sort of person, and since we didn’t have a solid idea of what she was like as a child, I was able to make that part up."
Actor knew she didn’t want to write about a perfect little girl.
"She needed some spunkiness in her, and I didn’t want her to always be honest," Actor said. "I wanted to make her into a character that every little child could relate to.
"I’ve learned in writing a novel that good protagonists need to have a little bit of the devil inside of them and good antagonists must have a little bit of an angel in them," she said.
Also, for the book’s purpose, Actor added a year to Dunbar’s age.
"Although I think children matured earlier those days and took on more responsibilities around the house and farm, I made the character older, because I didn’t think readers could believe a nine-year-old could pull off what she did," Actor said.
The response to the book, since it was published, has been surprising, and one of the first people to contact Actor was the daughter of a museum curator in Jackson.
"Her mom read the book out loud to the family, and I received an email from her nine-year-old daughter who asked me all kinds of questions about Dill’s family and the Confederate money," Actor said. "The characters were so real to her, and that thrilled me.
The book has also been included in the Civil War history curriculum of fourth-grade teachers in Indiana.
"Indiana is where my extended family lives, and that means a lot to me," Actor said "I was invited to speak at to the classes last month and met with these kids.
"They were so engaged with the story and when they asked questions, they knew all the locations and scenarios," she said. "I think there are so many good lessons for children in the book. There are lessons about courage, compassion and meeting your enemy and discovering that they are not that much different than you."
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