Thursday, August 19, 2010

orthodontist's waiting room & the story behind "Earthquake at Dawn"

Having braces at age 40 was a bummer, but Dr. Neufeld's waiting room made all those months worthwhile: he had great magazines! People, US Weekly, and home improvement stuff. One morning before my appointment, I became engrossed in a National Geographic article about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. One of the black-and-white photos mesmerized me.

It showed a team of beautiful horses that had been killed by falling bricks, their wagon covered in debris. I'd grown up in California, but earthquake reports had always been sanitized, meaning children and animals didn't die. Certainly not pretty horses delivering milk for breakfast. Another photo was of 22-year old Edith Irvine, whose camera captured this and other powerful images from that terrible morning of April 18th.

The magazine also printed --for the first time -- excerpts from a 33-page letter written by another young woman who survived the earthquake, Mary Exa Campbell. She described looters being shot, the fires, and babies being born in the park, including triplets. By the time I was reclined in the dental chair, a story was whizzing through my brain. At home, I called National Geographic. They gave me phone numbers of Edith's nephew, Jim Irvine, and Mary Exa's relatives who graciously sent me her letter and a 1st person account by Jack London.

I was delirious with story-itis -- can that be a word? -- and couldn't wait to call my editor at Harcourt, Karen Grove. A tale to tell is the most exciting moment for a writer, especially with true-life characters and original source documents; yikes, it was fun. Jim Irvine drove to my house in Redlands, with old photos and letters -- in the 1800s his family had owned the great sheep ranch which eventually became one of the largest cities in California: Irvine.
Earthquake at Dawn (Great Episodes)
The original cover of Earthquake at Dawn (Great Episodes)shows Edith Irvine with the horses in the background [ABOVE], and several of her photos are inside the book. I was thrilled when the Commonwealth Club of California honored it with the Silver Award for Juvenile Fiction in 1992.

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