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Civil War author visits young fans

September 16, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Author Kathleen Ernst uses fiction to spark children's interest in history.

"One of the best ways to learn about other places and other times is to read a good book," Ernst said at Shepherd College on Friday while discussing the Civil War and her creative process with about 60 fifth-grade students from Shepherdstown Elementary School.

The award-winning writer and historian helps young readers relate to such historical events as the Civil War by telling stories from the perspectives of such characters as young Chigger O'Malley of Williamsport, who questions his loyalties to the Union after caring for a wounded and defeated Confederate soldier trapped nearby while retreating from the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Ernst asked students to put themselves in the shoes of characters like Chigger - a task made easier by the students' proximity to Civil War-related sites.

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"You guys are so lucky because so much happened where you live and go to school. That makes it easy for you to imagine it, and imagination is the first thing you need if you're a writer," said Ernst, 43, of Wisconsin.

A Baltimore-area native whose interest in the Civil War bloomed with frequent visits to Western Maryland as a child, Ernst began writing historical fiction as a teenager.

"I just really grew to love this area," Ernst said. "I've always been intrigued not just by the military history, but by the social history, the people."

She earned her master's degree in history education and writing, focusing on Washington County during the Civil War for her thesis. Ernst's first two novels, "The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg" and "The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry," stemmed from her thesis research, she said.

That research and a decade more - including reading hundreds of military accounts and soldiers' diaries, visiting local historical societies and listening to oral histories passed down from generation to generation - resulted in Ernst's adult nonfiction book about civilians who were caught up in the Civil War battles of South Mountain and Antietam, she said.

Antietam National Battlefield historian Ted Alexander has praised Ernst's work in "Too Afraid to Cry: Civilians and the Antietam Campaign," saying she has done "a masterful job at joining together military and social history into a superbly readable story that will stand as the premier work on the subject for a long time."

Ernst will discuss that book today at the 140th Antietam re-enactment. She will be available for book signings Sunday at the Sharpsburg Heritage Festival.

Shepherdstown Elementary School teacher Cheryl Lawrence said she plans to add Ernst's newest historical fiction books - "Whistler in the Dark" and "Trouble at Fort La Pointe," a Mystery Writers of America nominee for Best Children's Mystery Book in 2001 - to the Ernst works already shelved in the school's library.

Books such as "Retreat from Gettysburg," which won the Arthur Tofte Juvenile Fiction Book Award, have proven excellent teaching tools and popular reading for students, Lawrence said.

"Everything about these books says 'readable,' " she said. "The students can relate to them. You can see the light bulbs go off in their heads when you start talking about the Civil War after they've read these books."

That, Ernst said, is what it's all about.

For more information about Ernst and her work, visit her Web site at www.distaff.net.

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