Writing about Someone Else’s Mom


I have accepted a huge writing challenge. One that demands an incredible amount of understanding of a certain piece of history. One that requires trying to conjure through skillful characterization a person I never met. One that needs to be done in a way that allows the reader to understand the significance of what Minnie Lee Gartley accomplished in three short years in the middle of her life. I am honored to be given the chance to do this, but I am also worried about being up to the task.

            The book I’m writing starts in the summer of 1969 and goes to the fall of 1972, during which time I was seventeen through twenty years old. Of course, I was aware of the Vietnam War, fearful for friends with low draft numbers, and horrified by body counts on the news, but I’m afraid I was not aware of so many things that were going on socially and politically around the war issue. The political divisiveness with a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Senate was something that I didn’t worry about as much as the schism of thought between the younger and older generations. The social movements for peace, for racial and sexual equality were important to me, but they were backdrops to my becoming an adult. After reading and studying this time period, I find there are many, many versions of what actually happened. So many different perspectives and opinions. It makes me question the whole idea of “history” itself.

            In describing my main character, my heroine, I have the help of her son and daughter-in-law, some of her close friends, videos, and her personal notes, testimonies, and talks. I’ve interviewed a brilliant peace activist who worked with her and a charming reporter who befriended her husband and wrote many articles about him and Minnie Lee’s activities. The problem is everyone seems to have a slightly different image of Minnie Lee. Some images contradict other images. Do we all have different versions of ourselves? The mother version, the teacher version, the wife, the friend, the activist? And most important, and what I see in Minnie Lee’s writings, the adversary. She was a fierce one of those. I am struggling to follow her through this quagmire of political and social groups to understand how she moved forward and managed to rescue her son from a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam.

The whole time I have been doing this project I also have a stern face in my mind’s eye. One of a strong woman from Kentucky who spent her married, adult life in Maine. One who defied her government’s admonitions and went with a peace group to Hanoi in the midst of U.S. bombing. One who looks at me and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

5 thoughts on “Writing about Someone Else’s Mom

  1. Valerie Reynolds says:

    Sweet One, is this a memoir, a biography or novel of creative fiction? One thing that might be the lace that holds the different views others had of Minnie Lee is also the amalgam of the view she had of herself. A strong, independent woman would gather up these other views, toss them in the air and say the hell with them, do what she intended, devil take the rest. Unlike other wars that came before, where the world held together with purpose, the Vietnam War was a lost time when we didn’t know what the devil we were doing there, panicked for our friends (guys I went to college with had either been, (depressed or injured mentally), or panicky, (trying to find ways to not go). Every time I’ve visited the Vietnam Memorial, I’d look for names… I knew names.

    You have a terrific premise and a magnificent character. Let her shine. She will tell you herself the more you get to know her completely, it will all come together, logically, since you should know her so well, you can hear her voice directing you.
    Trust her. I trust you.


  2. Cynthia Fraser Graves says:

    Cheryl, I think Minnie Lee would be cheering you on as you recreate for your readers the bravery and persistence that marked her remarkable life.
    She would be saying, “Thank You for your bravery and persistence in telling my story.” She would be hoping that a some one reading your book will take comfort and courage from her experiences to apply to some situation that they are going through in their lives.
    It’s a grand book and it’s in the hands of a very fine Maine writer.
    It’s a story that needs telling.
    The only voice saying “What the hell are you doing?” is your inner critic getting in your way.
    You go Girl! I’m waiting for a copy.


  3. Sue Morin says:

    It is an honor to be in your sphere as you challenge yourself daily to research, verify, and re-create this important story. I understand apprehensions, and I applaud you every time you face them and go forward. I’m anxious to read your ‘job well done.’


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