We do get by with a little help from our friends! I am so grateful to Lesa Cline-Ransome for connecting me with today’s guest, Ann E. Burg, one of her BFFs. Ann’s novel, Flooded, Requiem for Johnston (Scholastic) is an inventive approach to exploring an historical event. Read on to find out more of the tragic story behind her powerful book.
Hello! Happy Friday! Thanks for the opportunity to share some background information about my verse novel, Flooded, Requiem for Johnston.
Flooded started differently than most of my stories. Usually, I read or hear something interesting, something I’d like to know more about, and then, quite unintentionally, I find myself, (like my aging dog Smudges), sniffing around for every crumb of information, every illusive nugget that will satisfy my curiosity. Smudges looks under the kitchen table, but I look online, in books, and in old newspapers. At some point in my dogged research, a character begins to take shape…a voice…a story.
Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown (Scholastic) was a much more deliberate process. My brother-in-law, a professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, invited me to teach a workshop on Historical Fiction and I was actively searching for a relatively local nugget that I could explore with his students. What started as a lesson plan became a three year journey.
On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam, built 14 miles above the industrial town of Johnstown Pennsylvania, collapsed. Constructed on the side of a mountain high above Johnstown, the dam was a massive, earth-packed structure and the large artificial lake it created was originally intended to supply backwater for Pennsylvania’s extensive canal system. When the canals became obsolete, the South Fork Dam deteriorated.
Eventually, a group of wealthy businessmen purchased the reservoir and surrounding land. They renamed the reservoir Lake Conemaugh and transformed the lush land that encircled it into a peaceful, private retreat. Though warned repeatedly that the dam needed to be reinforced, members of club did not take the necessary precautions to strengthen the dam and on the last day of May, 1889, the dam collapsed, flooding Johnstown and killing at least 2209 people, including 99 entire families and 396 children.
Much has been written about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, and my notes include a history of the South Fork Dam, as well as portraits of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick and other movers and shakers of the late nineteenth century. But what moved me most were the hastily scribbled morgue entries written on scraps of paper and later listed in Beale’s Morgue Book.
Unknown female, about 13. Black stockings with red tips.
Unknown male. about 11. Black hair. Short black pants.
Unknown female, light hair. Blue eyes. 3 feet 8 inches.
Unknown male, burned beyond recognition.
Unknown, Unknown, Unknown.
Who were these people? What were their hopes? Their dreams? More than 2000 people gone in an instant! It’s difficult to wrap our minds around large numbers, but every scratch mark represents a unique person. Every scratch mark is a hope or dream extinguished. Told through voices from the Johnstown Community, Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown tells the story of ordinary individuals during a moment of profound reckoning.
The timeline of human experience has always been marked with challenging moments. It is, at the same time, marked with moments of courage, resilience and hope. In our own covid-impacted lives, we are learning that actions — or inactions— have consequences. More than 100 years ago, the bedraggled survivors of a hardworking industrial community learned the very same lesson. I simply wanted to honor them.
Ann E. Burg worked as an English teacher for many years before becoming a full-time writer. She is drawn to stories of the disenfranchised and voiceless and finds inspiration in little known or too-soon forgotten historical incidents. Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown is her fourth verse novel published by Scholastic Press. Her books have received numerous awards and commendations including the New York State Historical Society Book Prize, the Christopher Award and the Jefferson Cup Award.
Adults have always complained that children don’t know enough history. (The mistake of conflating the dates of the Trojan War and the French Revolution wouldn’t surprise us if we remembered how the world looked to us when we were under four feet tall.) When young readers know the human voices in Ann E. Burg’s story of the Johnstown Flood, they’re not likely to forget them. We all need these lessons.