Monday, May 15, 2017

It Took an Author

I'm still on writing hiatus, but something one of my cobloggers said about not knowing the story behind the story on a recent post inspired this blog.

Some of the greatest stories may have never been told if it were not for a writer who was first inspired by the tale and determined to bring it to the world's attention.

Here are just three of these remarkable authors and their stories behind the books.

Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and when her father began reminiscing about the 'computers'--which in former days had been a job title and not a machine--the author realized as a child she'd actually known some of the women who worked at NASA's nearby Langley Research Center.

In 2010, she started doing interviews and scouring archives with historians and surviving members of the Langley computer group about their experiences.

The result was Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. It was Ms. Shetterly's first book, published in 2016, but in 2014 she sold the film rights, and the book was adapted into the recent feature film titled Hidden Figures.

The author once said we can't change history, but we can change how we look at it and understand it. It took that same author to finally bring to light the amazing story of these women and how much they contributed to NASA and the success of the American space program, in spite of segregation and the racial attitudes of the day. How these women succeeded against all odds and barriers is an amazing tale.

And after nearly fifty years, it took an author to bring it to the world.

Thomas Keneally

In October of 1980, Thomas Keneally, an Australian author looking for a briefcase, happened to stop by a leather goods shop off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills while on a book signing tour. Upon learning he was an author, Leopold Page, the shop owner, told Keneally he had an incredible story to relate and desperately needed someone to write it. The many screen writers and film makers he'd spoken to over the years hadn't been interested.

It seemed Page, who's real name was Poldek Pfefferberg, had been searching for decades for someone who'd be inspired by a remarkable man and what he had done during World War II. In fact, Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews had been saved by this man during the Holocaust.

Page produced photocopies of documents--speeches, testimonies, first hand accounts and lists of names--that provided proof of his incredible story of a German man named Oskar Schindler. A man who was so revered by his selfless acts that that Jewish nation named him a Righteous Person.

Keneally was inspired by Page's story. He conducted interviews with the so-called Schindler Jews living in California, along with other research, and ended up writing that book, thereby sharing with the world this amazing tale of forgotten heroism. His book was titled Schindler's Ark. It was published on October 18, 1982, and won the Booker Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction.

Schindler's Ark later was adapted into the 1993 movie Schindler's List directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and is often included on lists of the best films ever made.

It took an author to add this amazing tale to the history of World War II.

Elizabeth Letts

It all began with a photograph--a picture of a horse and rider team jumping over the back of another horse. A woman saw that photo and something struck her about the "absolute trust" in the expression of the horse as his rider guided him over a very unique and challenging living jump.

The woman was Elizabeth Letts, and she couldn't forget the photograph. She had no information about the photo other than the name of the rider, and something compelled her to track him down. She managed to find an address for a man of the same unusual name--Harry de Leyer--and dashed off a letter to him. Just days later she received a phone call back from the man, who was now in his eighties, who began to tell her a wonderful, inspiring tale.

Maybe it was fate, because Elizabeth Letts had been a lifelong equestrian, who as a teen represented Area IV (California and Hawaii) in the North American Team and Individual Championships who'd studied creative writing at Yale with John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

You see, the horse in the photo was Snowman, a sadly neglected former plow horse from Pennsylvania that Harry de Leyer--a Dutch immigrant--had found on a truck headed for the slaughterhouse at the New Holland auction in 1956. He was looking for an inexpensive lesson horse for his riding stable but had arrived late and missed the sale. The only horses left were the ones no one wanted who had been picked up by a meat buyer and were headed to a terrible fate. Something Harry saw in the eight-year-old horse's eye stirred his heart--just as something Elizabeth saw in the horse's eye had sparked her imagination. Harry asked the dealer to back the horse off the trailer, and bought him for $80.

Harry took the horse to his modest farm on Long Island, and as planned, put him to work as a lesson horse but soon sold him to a neighbor for $160. But Snowman kept coming home--sometimes jumping five foot fences to return to Harry, and Harry soon realized there was a lot more to this horse than he'd ever realized.

The neighbor had  no problem selling Snowman back to Harry, and bit by bit, show by show, the horse began to demonstrate his great talent for jumping, and the duo began to win. In just two years, Harry and his discovery were winning against some of the finest and most expensive horses in the country, eventually climbing to the very top of the show jumping ranks.

That hopeless, cast-off, flea-bitten horse known as Snowman became a champion--the United States Equestrian Federation (the AHSA) Horse of the Year, the Professional Horsemens Association Champion, the Madison Square Garden's Diamond Jubilee Champion and the Open Jumper Champion in 1958 and again in 1959. Many years later, in 1992, Snowmen was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.

But the story behind Snowman is so much more than just that. It's a tale of two underdogs who beat the odds and bested the horse-jumping circuit of the mid-1950s when it was all about money and image.

After rediscovering Harry's and Snowman's adventure many decades later, Elizabeth Letts spent three years writing the book titled The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman--The Horse that Inspired a Nation--which is more than just a story about a great horse, but moving social commentary, just like Hidden Figures and Schindler's Ark.

Ms. Letts also wrote The Perfect Horse--the story of the US mission to rescue priceless stallions kidnapped by the Nazis.

Hope you enjoyed learning more about these stories behind the books.

Have a great week.


  1. I loved this post. Loved the story of the horse, in particular. Horses are so often dismissed in comparison with dogs and cats. But they are MUCH smarter than they are given credit for, and form much stronger bonds with people - as this horse did.

    As for Schindler's Ark - I just bought the book a couple of weeks ago. I've avoided books about the holocaust since my teens, but sometime not too far away I'm going to Auschwitz so I thought I should read that book.

    Apart from that, though, you said something profound."The author once said we can't change history, but we can change how we look at it and understand it."

    Yes. So much so. History is always written from the POV of the society a historian lives in. So women - especially black women - disappear into the 'they also served' masses. How often has this happened? Women pioneered so much of computer science and their names are forgotten. It's important that historians (or maybe novelists) go back and look again at history, and examine it from a different perspective.

  2. Thanks, Greta. I saw the movie Schindler's List and while parts of it were very hard to watch, it gave me a whole new perspective on the Holocaust. David visited Auschwitz long ago. He said it was haunting.

    Yes, I love the paraphrased quote from Margot Shetterly, too, about how we can't change history but we can change how we understand it. She nailed it.

  3. Wow, wonderful, uplifting and inspiring. I love the message in that quote, too. Thanks, Laurie.

    1. Thanks, Merry! I was mesmerized while doing the research for these authors and books. Huge inspiration, for sure.

  4. Let's hope more of these hidden stories come to light!

  5. Our trainer told us about Snowman and strongly recommended the movie as one the girls might enjoy. I'd forgotten about it, so it's good to have the reminder! Really enjoyed these behind-the-scenes stories.

    1. Another one they might like is International Velvet. It's a sequel to National Velvet, but it's about Velvet's orphaned niece taking a son of Pie to the Olympics as a Three Day Eventer. It's much more realistic and less fairy tale than the original, but it's a 1978 film so it's dated. The stars are a young Tatum O'Neil, Anthony Hopkins as the Olympic coach and Christopher Plummer as Velvet's (romance/erotica author) significant other. It does have a couple of adult lines, so you might want to view it first if you're selective about what the kids watch. Here's the trailer:

    2. I saw that film MANY years ago - good suggestion. I did not remember the romance author angle!


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