Warning, readers. This is a longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll find it’s worth every word.
Many people are familiar with the adage: Think globally, act locally.
This advice, like much advice, is simple on the surface but more complex when it comes to real life. I support organizations that have proven themselves to be successful in accomplishing things globally by providing services and support locally.
Sustainable, life-changing support.
Some examples are:
Click on any of the above to learn more about their approaches, although I suspect most of you are already familiar with these organizations. I invite you to suggest others in the comments.
My awareness of Heifer International began when I read a picture book, featuring one real girl and her family. BEATRICE’S GOAT, written by Page McBrier and illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter, released in 2001. It’s a winning story of how Heiffer International programs change lives and provide the catalyst for communities to change themselves. Here’s a link to learn more about how Beatrice seized her opportunities and used them to the maximum.
I’ve supported this organization ever since, always knowing their person-to-person programs make the most of the limited dollars I could contribute.
Recently I learned about the origin story that was totally unknown to me. And again, it reached me through a picture book. In this case, it’s SEAGOING COWBOY, written by Peggy Reiff Miller and illustrated by Claire Ewart (Brethern Press, 2016)
The story is told through the voice of a young man who looks for adventure and finds a connection to people a half-a-world away. During the late 1940s the Church of the Brethern of Indiana were seeking a way to help desperate families in central Europe rebuild their lives following years of destruction during the Second World War.
An inspired Midwest community decided to provide donated breeding stock to farmers whose land and lives had been left in ruins. But their valuable horses and heifers needed to arrive in good condition. Knowledgeable “cowboys” volunteered to tend the pregnant cows and horses on their voyage from the United States to Poland and other countries most in need.
These men dealt with seasickness, storms, and the delivery of a calf named HOPE during their passage. They were met with a landscape of devastation and faces of hopefulness. The illustrations capture the mood, setting, and challenges described in Miller’s simple rhythmic text. The author included back matter (text and archival photos) that reveal further details of life aboard ship and accounts of other voyages by surviving volunteer cowboys. Her author’s note provides context for the needs addressed and the impact of those initial efforts, as well as her resources for assuring authenticity to her story. She continues to post interviews with various “Seagoing Cowboys” on her blog, here.
I’m very pleased that Peggy was willing to answer some questions for me about the origins of her origin story in this debut picture book.
Welcome, Peggy, and congratulations on the March, 2016 release of THE SEAGOING COWBOY.
PRM: Thank you!
Your website header says you’re a writer and historian. You also indicate you’ve been writing for many years, producing manuscripts for a variety of audiences and outlets. Why did you choose picture book format rather than a longer form to share this particular history?
PRM: I don’t think I chose the format as much as it chose me. I had started out writing a YA novel, which did get written, revised, and re-written a few times after major workshops, like a Highlights Foundation workshop and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. But the market for straight historical fiction for young adults without a fantasy element or romance went south; and agents I contacted who liked the story said they didn’t think they could sell it. So it’s resting. Parallel to writing the novel, I had gone to a Highlights Foundation workshop with Carolyn Yoder on writing nonfiction. I pitched the idea of a story to her about the seagoing cowboys and she was interested. So I wrote a piece about seagoing cowboys in general that she didn’t think was right for Highlights, but she wondered if I might be interested in rewriting it to focus on a single cowboy, which I did and which was published in Highlights for Children in October 2013. When I saw a picture book in my public library about a couple of grandfather’s sitting on a porch telling their stories, I got the idea to revise my original manuscript sent to Highlights from the viewpoint of three grandpas who went as cowboys to three different countries and call it “Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy.” Brethren Press purchased that manuscript; but through the editing process, the resulting book became a quite different and more wonderful story.
Few people have heard of the post-WWII origins of the Heifer Project on which your fictionalized book is based. How did you learn about the seagoing cowboys?
PRM: I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which started the Heifer Project in 1942. Most all involved members knew about the project and participated in some way or other–raising heifers, donating money, or transporting animals. So I had heard about seagoing cowboys as a kid, but I didn’t know that my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. After Grandpa died, my father gave me an envelope of pictures from his trip to Poland in 1946. Those pictures beckoned to me for a long time and became the impetus for my novel and the resulting research.
With so much research and so many personal stories collected, what shaped your decisions about the narrator and the cowboy in your book?
PRM: As I said, I had started out writing from the viewpoints of three grandpas telling their stories. But that was just too cumbersome, and my editor and I realized I needed to write the story from the perspective of one cowboy in the historical setting and not as a grandpa looking back in time. I decided to use an unnamed narrator who would represent “every cowboy” and add a friend so there could be a consistent companion. I’ve always been captured by John Nunemaker’s experience of finding his own family’s horse on his ship, so when I needed something to help create a storyline, I borrowed his story and named the friend John.
What goals will you use to judge your response when someone asks, “How is your book doing?”
PRM: I’ll base my response on comments I get back from readers and not on sales numbers. Brethren Press is a small press that can’t get into the large distribution networks, so I’m not anticipating mega-sales.
The book has had a wonderful reception so far by seagoing cowboys and their families, as well as members of the Church of the Brethren who share this history. Heifer International staff are excited to have this part of their history told.
One of my main goals in getting the book published was to offer a way for families of seagoing cowboys to be able to honor the service of their loved ones and share the story with succeeding generations. From the responses I’m getting, I’ve hit the mark on that one! It’s very humbling and rewarding at the same time to receive their notes of appreciation.
The mission of Heifer International, [link] includes training and the expectation of a pay-it-forward commitment from recipients. How are the principles of the current organization rooted in the original Heifer Project?
PRM: The intention of the original Heifer Project Committee and the Brethren Service Committee under which it served until incorporation in 1953, was to provide help to the neediest of farmers without regard to race, religion, or nationality. Heifer International continues to operate in that vein. And they operate on the basis of their “Twelve Cornerstones,” where each community that receives Heifer’s assistance receives training in values such as accountability, sharing and caring, gender and family focus, improved animal management, sustainability and self-reliance, etc. But the main cornerstone that makes Heifer so special and in tune with the original program is “Passing on the Gift.” To participate in the program, recipients pledge to pass on the first female offspring of their animal to another family. This gives the original receiver the dignity of becoming a giver and expands exponentially the outreach of the program. The “Pass On” ceremonies pictured on Heifer’s website are very moving.
Please tell readers about your current projects?
PRM: Always too many to get them all done! I have a Seagoing Cowboys website that I’ve recently revamped and write a regular twice-monthly blog on it about seagoing cowboy history. I’m currently working with Heifer International as a historical consultant, researching a book project on the shipments they made to Germany throughout the decade of the 1950s, helping Germany in their recovery from World War II. A writer in Germany is working on that end to find the recipients with the information I’m feeding him, document their stories, and write the book.
Outside of my work with Heifer, I’m independently working on a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, which I’d love to have ready by Heifer’s 75th anniversary in 2019, but I have my doubts I’ll make that deadline. I’m also working on a book for adults about the seagoing cowboy history, and would like to do a middle grade nonfiction book on this topic, as well. I have another historical fiction picture book manuscript drafted related to the shipments to Germany in the 1950s, which I’m ready to start submitting. And my novel will beckon to me at some point to try again. Not to mention several other picture book manuscripts waiting for attention.
You indicated a lifelong “itch” to write, and that you’ve now found your way to embrace your writing self and find outlets to share it with readers. Do you have any advice for others who have felt (or are just now feeling) that itch to write?
PRM: If the itch is for writing for children, I’d say join SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. That was one of the best things I ever did. It’s where I found my wonderful critique group, and where I’ve been able to participate in conferences to learn from other authors, editors, agents, and publishing professionals. Without the conferences and my wonderful writers group, The TaleBlazers, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Thank you, Peggy. It’s been delightful to virtually meet you here and learn more about your own voyage to sharing these amazing stories.
I urge readers to request this book at your library or independent bookstore. Share the story on social media and help others learn about it. When the problems of the world loom so overwhelming that hopelessness rears its head, books like this one remind us that problems are solved one person at a time.
For more about the early days of this organization, check out another picture book from Brethern Press, FAITH, THE COW, written by Susan Bame Hoover and illustrated by Maggie Sykora.