Mary Ann Rodman has wanted to be a writer since age three, when she taught herself how to read. However, it never occurred to her to write a story about her own childhood—growing up in the newly integrated South—until she saw the movie Mississippi Burning as an adult. "It surprised me how many people questioned the movie's authenticity. I began to think that maybe I should write about my childhood," remarks Rodman, whose father, like the Gene Hackman character in the film, was an FBI agent sent to Mississippi to investigate hate crimes during the Civil Rights movement.
The opportunity to begin working on Yankee Girl, a moving account of a displaced Northern girl's initiation to prejudice, came in 1998, when Rodman left her job as a librarian in Wisconsin to move to Thailand with her husband, Craig, and daughter Lily, then three-and-a-half. Finding herself submerged in a "completely different culture" once again, the author was reminded of her first years in Mississippi, which inspired her to begin her memoirs.
"I needed to separate myself a couple degrees from painful memories," says Rodman, explaining why she ultimately decided to switch to third person and write her book from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Alice Ann. "Although Alice Ann and I are alike in some ways, she is much braver, smarter and less self-conscious than I was at her age. She is an improved version of me, someone who I wish I could have been."
In the book, Alice Ann, who is torn between wanting to fit in with her peers and wanting to stand up for her beliefs, eventually finds the courage to befriend an African-American classmate: Valerie, the much-ridiculed daughter of a renowned Civil Rights leader.
At the same time Rodman was working on Yankee Girl in Thailand, she enrolled in the online MFA program at Vermont College, which proved to be an invaluable step in her writing career. "It was the making of me as a writer," she states enthusiastically. "I can't stress enough the importance of having a support group." Via e-mail, she began receiving critiques of her manuscript by a series of mentors, including Sharon Darrow, Ron Koertge, Marion Dane Bauer and Randy Powell, all members of the Vermont College faculty. It was Powell (who worked at FSG) who took a particular interest in Yankee Girl and eventually helped the author get the book into the right hands.
Although few plot changes were required of the novel after its acceptance, editor Robbie Mayes was, according to Rodman, "meticulous" about checking out every fact. "He went as far as researching the whereabouts of Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in 1964 to make sure that it was plausible for them to have been seen at the funeral of Valerie's father," the author recalls.
Although Yankee Girl is aimed at middle schoolers, Rodman (who is now living in Georgia and involved in several new writing projects) has received feedback on her first novel from readers of all ages. "The reactions can be categorized both regionally and demographically," the author notes. "Most Northerners love the book. Children from the South often say, 'Wow, I didn't know that [brutal instances of racism] happened.' Southern white people from my generation start apologizing for their sins. Older Southerners—from my parents' generation—either get a frozen expression on their face when they hear about what I've written, or they ask, 'Why do you want to bring all that up?"
However varied the responses, it is clear that Rodman's book is having an impact. Retired teacher Marion Turner, a friend of Rodman who provided the author with anecdotes and an African-American viewpoint for Valerie's character, said of the finished story, "Yankee Girl is an everybody kind of book."