This month I have the privilege to interview Valerie Vierk author of five books, three of which revisit events people from and Ravenna's history: Gold Stars and Purple Hearts—the War Dead of the Ravenna, NE Area, Sailing the Troubled Sea—A Nebraska Boy Goes to War, and Winter of Death: Victims of the 1918 - 1919 Influenza Epidemic in the Ravenna, Nebraska Area. Gold Stars and Purple Hearts contains the biographies of 36 veterans from Ravenna, and Sailing the Troubled Sea is a biography of Valerie’s father’s World War II Coast Guard experiences. In Winter of Death she gives biographies of the 32 victims of the influenza epidemic. Strangely, Ravenna suffered a much higher death rate than neighboring towns.
Valerie’s fourth book, A Sister of My Own is a fiction novel centered on a girl in small town Nebraska. Her fifth book, Christmas of the Dolls and Other Stories of the Season is a collection of Christmas short stories, reminiscences, and accounts from Ravenna.
Valerie revealed some of herself to me in the following paragraph.
Ravenna is very much home but Kearney is my second home. I've been commuting for 35 years now; sixty miles round trip. I live in Ravenna because I love nature and in Dec. 2003 my dream of living along the South Loup River came true. I'd owned the three acres for several years but couldn't afford to build out there. Then the interest rates dropped and I decided "Now or never" so I took the leap. One day while I was standing on the high bank overlooking the river I suddenly saw a fawn appear on the sandbar. Then his twin appeared. I watched them bucking and frolicking, and that was the deciding factor. I decided if I could live that close to nature I'd better do it. I haven't regretted it. My house sits only 100 feet from the bank.
Glenda: Your attachment to your roots seems very strong. Why don't you tell us some of your favorite moments or events over the years?
Valerie: My mother’s side of the family came to the Ravenna area around 1886 so yes, my roots are deep. I was fortunate to always live very close to my parents. I was one of those kids who didn’t move away and now that both parents are deceased my life is different. Where I live along the river is only about 100 yards from where my great grandparents lived for a while when my great grandfather was the agent on the Union Pacific Railroad. When I moved out to my new place, Mom said, “It seems like you are meant to be here.”
Glenda: Writing biographies about other people can be a task of love and very difficult. Often people who have been in war don't like to speak about their experiences. How did this affect your pursuit for the biographies included in Gold Stars and Purple Hearts?
Valerie: Sadly, most of the men I was writing about were already deceased. My parents were both living then and they knew most of the men. That helped me feel that I knew them. I also contacted all the relatives I could find and they were very helpful.
Concerning my dad’s book, he was initially reluctant because he thought it would sound like he was bragging. (He was in the D-Day invasion and was wounded.) I said it wasn’t bragging because I was asking him to do it. I didn’t have to delve too deep with him because I knew it was awful. He summed it up in the book, “It was carnage.” (The day on Omaha Beach) Even in war though, there were humorous scenes with Dad and his young crew members, which I included in the book.
Glenda: Article writing was one of my first professional pursuits. You mentioned to me that you were asked to write some articles for the Buffalo County Historical Society and that's how you started writing non-fiction books. Now you've branched into your first choice - fiction. Do you think that authors often get started through a chain of genres and mixed genres?
Valerie: Yes, sometimes life throws us an unexpected curve, and sometimes it is a good thing. That’s how I got started writing historical articles. The editor was desperate for something to put in that month’s newsletter and he knew me and asked. It went from there. Many writers write in various genres I’ve noticed from the Nebraska Writers Guild information.
Glenda: We don't always directly refer to something or someone in a story, but we find bits and pieces of a personality that intrigue us. Maybe it's just a statement someone made, or a movement. Are you a people watcher in the sense that you will often take mental notes that will later turn up in your writing, even if it's just a mannerism?
Valerie: Yes. It’s fun to observe people. I think people who read our work are always looking for someone they know. For instance, after reading my novel, my son asked, “Is that woman you describe as having a face like a doll the wife of Mike?” I was surprised and said no, that wasn’t the woman I had in mind but was surprised he remembered me saying that about Mike’s wife from years before. I enjoy hearing how people interpret my books. Often they see something totally different than what we had in mind!
Glenda: Finally, you related a beautiful scene that helped you make the decision to finally place a home on your Ravenna property. Tell me and my readers about your love of nature and achieving that dream.
Valerie: Mom was a farm girl, and her dad leased a section of “school land” that is only a half mile from where I now live. Grandpa held the lease for about forty years so it seemed like family land. When I was a child Mom would take my brother, sister and me on fall nature walks on this land by the river. I cherish those memories and I still walk on that land frequently. Mom instilled the love of nature in me. For forty years I’ve maintained a bluebird trail and have about 85 houses up now.
Only about a hundred yards north of my house is a slough, and in 2009 a rare trumpeter swan showed up there! The next summer he brought a mate, and the next summer they hatched one cygnet. Last summer they hatched four but the slough was drying up and the swan family evacuated to the river on the 4th of July. I am sorry to say the cygnets all perished from predators, but I saw the parents at our little lake east of town in September. We hope for better luck next summer. It has been an incredible thrill to observe and photograph these rare birds to our area and I see it as a gift from God. I plan to write a book about them soon and will title it “The Gift of Swans.” The huge birds made an awesome sound when they fly over. It sounds kind of like a French horn. It is so thrilling and I am so fortunate to live where I can closely observe them!
I am also writing a nature journal, separate from the swan book.
Valerie Vierk's interests haven't been reduced by being a hometown girl. This being the month of Thanksgiving and to remember our veterans, it is fitting that Valerie, who has devoted two of her books to war heroes, is my featured author. She is a woman who puts a high value on family and has one son and a daughter-in-law. I imagine she extends that family sentiment to the wildlife around her. I'm sure Val will have special treats out for the birds that stay and winter near her home. She's taken on a special task greeting the things of nature as a part of her family heritage and continued labor of love.
Valerie, I hope your trumpeter swans will return to the slough near your home. Your commitment and care for the people and things around you touches life in ways many will never notice, except as they read you books or have the privilege of being your family and friends. Thank you Valerie for sharing with us about your life and it's influence on your writing.
I wish Valerie Vierk and all who read this a very Happy Holidays.