Jeanie Harris met “Dust Bowl poet” Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel at just the right time: long after she had been recognized for her poetry, but long before the digital age of email and text messaging.
McDaniel was still living in Tulare, California, where her family had relocated to find work in the 1930s, and where the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper had first published her work. Harris, a mail carrier new to the area, didn’t realize who McDaniel was at first.
“I delivered mail to the senior complex where she lived, and I noticed that she was always receiving packages that were too big for her inbox. I started hand delivering her mail as a courtesy, and we would always chat for a moment. I learned all about her family and her poetry. Over time, we were friends—then I had to move away.”
Harris had a long-harbored desire that she had only shared with McDaniel: she wanted to write.
“I confided in her that I wished I could write like she did, but felt I couldn’t because I didn’t have a college degree. She just squinted at me and said, ‘That’s what’s stopping you? If you want to write, write!’ I found out later that she didn’t have a degree either.”
Harris moved away from Tulare, but kept in touch with McDaniel by writing letters. She remembers receiving notes that were covered in handwritten text from top to bottom, and looped around the edges.
“Her letters were so exciting to read,” Harris said. “She was always encouraging me to go further with my writing. I started getting some work as a freelance journalist, and realized I could really do it.”
One of Harris’ proudest moments was her feature spread in Highlights for Children magazine, about a young girl who grew a 900-pound pumpkin. Still, Harris had her eye on a bigger story.
“The more I got to know about Wilma’s childhood, the more I realized what a great story she had lived. I knew I wanted to turn it into a book.”
Harris worked on the project for several years, and released it with McDaniel’s publisher, Back40. The novel Chasing Fireflies follows McDaniel’s actual childhood, growing up in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.
Harris writes, “Lately, she’d been scavenging inch-long pencil stubs because she liked to sneak off by herself and put words together to make up little stories of her own. She didn’t dare write on her good school tablet, but she squirreled away other bits of paper she found, and was thrilled the day she discovered that Mama forgot to throw out last year’s calendar. Wilma had written a few lines under the year 1925. Her strings of words became more and more like poetry, though they didn’t rhyme like poems should.”
Though Harris is no longer a mail carrier, she fears for her former colleagues, with the postal service in financial dire straits.
“Mail carriers have always had reliable, steady jobs. They’ve not yet been affected by the economy, so it’s scary to think that they could be. I think the first thing to go will be Saturday delivery, then they’ll close down the rural post offices. It’s sad, but I doubt if the American public will even notice much.”
The art of writing letters may be on the decline for most of the country, but not for Harris.
“I like to correspond,” she said. “There are people I met decades ago that I still keep in touch with. A handwritten letter just means more. People keep them and cherish them, unlike emails and texts. I don’t think most people are thinking much when they send something online. When you write a letter, you sit and chew the end of your pencil and worry about how your thoughts will look on paper, because 100 years later, their grandchildren might still have it.”
Chasing Fireflies is available at back40publishing.com.