AS I SIT AT MY DESK ON THE
SECOND FLOOR OF my home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I am wondering
where to begin and what to select from the crowded memories of
more than thirty years of writing. Literally millions of words
and most of them for Catholic publications.
My attention is caught by my
latest book, a juvenile like the rest, DeTonti of the Iron
Hand (1959), and I think it might be just as well to start
with the end, as it were; to tell something about this story
since it also tells so much about myself and my work.
The book, as the reader will
note, is dedicated to the memory of my brother, Father Harold
J. Heagney, a much better known and more distinguished Catholic
writer than myself. His sudden death on March 2, 1958, brought
to a sad end our long and happy association of working together
for the Catholic field.
Or was the tie really broken?
Let me explain why I pose such an odd question. Only a day after
my brother's death, a contract arrived from his publishers, P.
J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, for his next book-one of their
American Background series. It would have been his twenty-second.
The twenty-first and last, Chaplain in Gray (1958), the
story of Father Abram Ryan, famed poet-priest of the Confederacy,
appeared one month after his death and was selected by the Doubleday
Catholic Junior Book Club.
Father's publisher, Thomas
B. Kenedy, graciously allowed me to write my own name on the
contract and go ahead with the story as my brother had planned
it. I had kind assurances, too, from Julie Kernan, editor of
American Background series. It was a lift to my sorrowing heart
to have such confidence placed in me, and I was thankful indeed
to undertake the task.
But was I up to it, I asked
myself with a feeling close to panic? DeTonti of the Iron Hand
- he wore a metal fist to replace his right hand shot away in
the Spanish wars - was to be an adventure story primarily for
boys. The hero was the chief military aide to the great explorer
LaSalle on his discovery voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi
River in 1682. Never had I attempted a book with such masculine
essence-daring exploits and dangers along the unchartered waterways
and in the primeval forests, savage tribes and savage beasts,
murder and mutiny, loyalty and courage and high achievement.
There were times when I was sunk in discouragement, and it was
then I felt the unseen but sustaining presence of my brother
guiding and inspiring me as he had from the beginning.
I had come into the religious
field through his influence, though I had decided before that
to make writing my lifework. A college course in journalism qualified
me for a reporter's position on the Arkansas Democrat, Little
Rock, which was our family home. I liked my job but it was only
a means to an end, for I regarded it as training and experience
and a steady income while I was learning to be a creative writer.
I had no intention of specializing
as I have in the juvenile and historical fields. I wanted to
be a realistic writer and did sell a few rather lurid yarns of
the Arkansas oil fields which had been discovered in the early
twenties. Let such titles "Midnight at the Birdcage"
and "Scarlet Woman" speak for themselves.
But most of my stories were
coming back until an observant and sympathetic city editor suggested
that I turn my hand to writing for children. It was part of my
job at the time (1926) to edit a Sunday children's page and I
had a gang of reporters from all the schools to supply me with
news. I would regale them with movie parties and ice cream sodas.
Tom Mix was in his glory then and they would almost always stay
to see the show twice.
"You have a way with kids,"
my editor pointed out. "They like you-you like them. Why
not write children's stories?" And he handed me a copy of
Author and Journalist, with a juvenile market list.
"Anything. Anything I
can sell," I avowed.
Well, I sold one story after
another. Before long I gave up my newspaper job and joined Father
Heagney who was doing parish work and writing on the side. Of
course, it was only natural for a priest to turn his talents
to the Catholic field and he had some wonderful friends among
the Catholic editors who recognized and developed his unusual
writing ability. It seemed almost inevitable that I too should
be drawn into my brother's circle and so by easy and unplanned
stages I found myself right in the middle of the Catholic field.
Let one example tell briefly
the situation: the case of the well-known priest editor, now
retired, of two popular monthly magazines, one adult and one
juvenile, who thought so well of my work that he had me writing
under a dozen different pen names: short stories, articles, a
woman's page,-all came grinding regularly forth from my literary
mill, and I'll never forget the thrill that was mine when he
said that my brother and I "wrote equally well."
If that sounds like egotism
I'm sorry, for I only repeat the compliment to illustrate how
closely I followed my brother's lead. Especially, since it was
this same editor who first published the fictionized biographical
and historical writings for which Father Heagney-and in turn
myself-became most widely recognized.
All of my Catholic books come
under this category. (I had written two non-denominational type
books for older girls with newspaper atmosphere which are out
of print.) The first four were published by Bruce, Milwaukee,
where I have had a happy and valued association with Ed Weiler,
who is in charge of their juvenile department.
Two of my Bruce books, Simon
o' the Stock (1955) and The Marylanders (1957) are
in their Catholic Treasury series. The others, The Magic Pen
(1949) and God and the General's Daughter (1953), are
for older girls. I have some happy recollections about each of
these brain children of mine. The Marylanders, a story
of the Puritan revolt in Lord Baltimore's Catholic colony, was
cited in The Writer as an example of quality writing for
juveniles; Simon o' the Stock, the story of the little
boy who ran away with his little dog from a castle to live in
a big old tree and grew up to become the great Carmelite saint
who founded the scapular devotion, has been translated by a native
missionary for East Indian readers; God and the General's
Daughter, the story of beautiful, scoffing Fannie Allen,
daughter of General Ethan Allen, who became the first New England
nun, has run into several editions and seems to be a perennial
favorite with older girls. And The Magic Pen, my first,
tells the inspiring story of a nineteenth-century popular novelist,
Frances Fisher Tiernan (known in literature as Christian Reid),
who became famous at twenty-four. It has not done as well as
the others, but I like it best.
Next I worked on a theme which
surpassed anything I have as yet attempted: the little-known
story of the heroic Catholic nuns who cared for the wounded and
dying on the battlefields of the Civil War. With the centennial
of the war so near, it should have special interest. I only hope
I have done justice to my story of Mother Euphemia (Bruce, Catholic
Treasury series, 1961).
Heroines of the Faith are favorite
subjects with me and I have written many, many short stories
about them for both adult and juvenile magazines. At the suggestion
of an official of the National Council of Catholic Women whom
I met at a convention, I started writing a series based on the
lives of married women saints. These appeared in the Catholic
Home Journal, which has since been merged with another Franciscan
publication. "Silver Wedding Day," in which a dramatic
incident brings about the reform of St. Catherine of Genoa's
erring husband, was reprinted in the Family Digest.
For several years my stories
of the saints have been appearing regularly in Catholic Miss
of America and occasionally in Hi!, two magazines
of Publications for Catholic Youth, Minneapolis. Florence Flugaur,
managing editor for both, is the kind of editor a writer wishfully
dreams about. Now Catholic Miss has consolidated with
Catholic Boy and will henceforth be published at Notre
Dame. In a "Debby Debate" opinion column in the Catholic
Miss twelve copies of my DeTonti of the Iron Hand were
awarded as prizes. At the time the book was published Father
Keller of the Christophers wrote me that they were praying for
its success. And incidentally, as regards the Christopher movement,
of which I am a zealous member, I consider it the most dynamic
Christian force in America today.
The DeTonti book has brought
me letters of commendation from Bishop Fletcher of Little Rock
as well as from Senator McClellan and Congressman Norrell of
Arkansas, and one from the 1960 Democratic candidate for President
of the United States, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts,
who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his Profiles in Courage.
He wrote me: "I think this is a particularly intriguing
story for children."
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.