Carrie Jones may be best known as the author of the novels Need and Captivate, but she claims that her picture-book biography, Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: The True Story of a Civil War Spy, illustrated by Mark Oldroyd, is “kind of a coming home.” She started out as a newspaper reporter and editor, so fact-collecting and fact-checking is second nature to her—which turns out to be helpful when you’re researching a woman disguised as a Union Army soldier in the late 1800s.
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How did Sarah Emma Edmonds first come to your attention?
When I was little, my grandparents had a farm in Canada. My father would say there are great Canadian-Americans, and he mentioned her. He thought it was cool to have a woman spy who fooled all the boys. Then I was at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and two spies caught my attention. One was Moe Berg—that was the first nonfiction book [of mine] that was picked up in 2007, and the illustrator is working on it right now—the other was Sarah.
What attracted you to her as a subject?
It’s always hard to verify historical aspects of spies, but it seemed like her father was very tough, and she had a childhood that was pretty hard. Then she got to America and once again had to strike out on her own, as a woman in [the 1850s], and to do whatever she could to survive. That aspect of self-realization but also the aspect of adventure—during her exploits in the Civil War—appealed to me. She went from this kid who was abused to a hero and did it by being brave and taking chances and being very unconventional. Not only does she get past her own difficulties but she helps others besides—it’s not even her own country.
That’s fascinating, isn’t it, that she was born in Canada, yet decided to join the Union Army of the United States. Any idea why?
The quote I used was really the core quote [“I am naturally fond of adventure… but patriotism was the true secret of my success”]. She’s not an emotive memoir writer. She’s very concise. She doesn’t really expound on that the way someone would now.
How did you decide how much of Sarah’s story to tell?
There are so many fascinating details about her, but you have to keep it to that through line. In some genres that’s harder than others. In novels you have plots and subplots. In a poem you can have several, depending on the poem. I think of picture books like an article. You whittle and whittle and whittle away, and eventually the core comes out.
Do you know what she did after the Civil War?
In her memoir it says she could have easily returned to Canada, but she made a choice not to. Most of her life after the war was her being a regular woman of the time. Sarah married a Canadian mechanic and had three kids in 1867, after her memoir was published [in 1865 at the age of 24]. Frank Thompson [her alias as the Union soldier and spy] was gone. It’s strange, because we expect people to have their entire life be one of courage. With Sarah and with Moe [Berg], the bigness of their lives happens, and it wasn’t a life of glamour afterwards. Moe had a harder time going back into the real world than Sarah did. I have such a fixation on “oh, my God, has the best part of my life already ended?”