Author fleshes out project



June 21, 2011 - 12:00 AM

In his 66 years, Douglas Armstrong had spent 15 minutes in Humboldt, but knows the town from the early years of the 1920s better than most who live there.
Armstrong spoke at a meeting of the Allen County Historical Society Monday evening about his book, “Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows,” in which he gives a view of Humboldt — Cornucopia in the book — through the eyes of his mother, Emma Starkey. She, at 95, today lives in Minneapolis, but spent her formative years in Humboldt.
“It (Humboldt) was fully formed in my mind by my mother’s imagination” and recollections, Armstrong said.
The 15 minutes he previously spent in Humboldt was a cursory dash through town when he once was close enough to stop by without going out of his way, one of those “I’m been there” type of visits.
Armstrong took more time on Monday to look at the neighborhood where his mother lived while her father worked in a lumber yard. He visited graves of relatives in Mount Hope Cemetery and generally got a hands-on feel for a town he knew well from about 140 emails his mother composed as he did research for the book.
It was the epitome of deja vu.
Armstrong began research for “Sunflowers” in May 2007 and by November began to write, using Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as primer and model. Just as did Lee, he began with the book’s conclusion and then fleshed it out over 307 captivating pages.
“I had three challenges,” Armstrong told about 30 people, including a sizable delegation from Humboldt.
First, was accumulating enough material to give the book substance.
“Then, I wanted to honor Mom’s memories and protect the privacy” of those living and dead named in the book, either by their real names or pseudonyms, he said.
Thirdly, he wanted to write the book in the voice of his mother as a six-year-old, which Armstrong accomplished to the point, where “I could close my eyes and hear my mother’s voice.”
The project wasn’t done overnight. He began writing in November 2007 and the book was published in September 2010.
The work was a labor of love, he said, and also permitted him to “learn much about my family and relatives. It was a journey into family lore and history.”
While it was “partly fabricated from whole cloth,” Armstrong judged the book was two-thirds his mother’s remembrances and a third of his own, with the fabrication filling in around the edges.
He read passages, replete with metaphors and similes that brought frequent chuckles, often because they very likely kindled memories of their own.
Kids then, in the teens and 1920s, “lived in cocoons and didn’t care about the outside world,” Armstrong said, which helps make the book an intriguing read.

ARMSTRONG has been a newspaper reporter, editorial writer, columnist and film critic.
He was born in Wichita and now lives in Wisconsin with his second wife. He is the father of four and grandfather of one.

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