Jeannette Rankin books and me: an author’s view of writing a biography

First page of One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story

The new Jeannette Rankin biography, by Kevin S. Giles, starts with her participation in a peace protest at the US Capitol in 1968. A life story begins with countless days spent in libraries and a quest for sources that yield facts. Research for ‘One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story,’ started years ago.

By Kevin S. Giles

There are a fair number of Jeannette Rankin books on the market, including my new One Woman Against War and my original biography of Rankin, entitled Flight of the Dove. A few authors have tried to promote their work by dissing other Rankin biographies. That’s not fair play in the publishing world and I won’t do it. Instead I’ll let my research and writing in One Woman Against War speak for itself.

Any biographer will learn quickly that portraying someone’s entire life, as I did with Rankin, takes years. First comes the idea for a book, then excitement over discoveries as the author spends countless afternoons in libraries scrolling through microfilm. A realistic understanding of the work involved is critical. To fully know someone’s life requires organic, primary research, including sourcing of original documents and sources with first-hand knowledge. The would-be biographer who fails to recognize that writing about someone’s life involves real work might be better off planting tomatoes.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

It’s no good, at first, to tell people you’re “writing a biography.” Without facts there’s no story to write. I often spent hours verifying a single fact, hours more trying to find an elusive one.

One Woman Against War, a biography by Kevin S. Giles

One Woman Against War: The Jeannette Rankin Story, traces the life and times of America’s first congresswoman from the campaigns for woman suffrage to the famous Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest at the US Capitol during the Vietnam War.

Organizing a biography is another challenge. How should the author tell the story? In One Woman Against War, I chose to open the book with Jeannette Rankin as an old woman, participating in a Vietnam war protest in 1968 at the US Capitol. I tried other openings to the book but discarded them. It felt right to put Rankin in the middle of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade peace protest, at the zenith of her long life as a pacifist, before walking readers into her early beginnings in Montana.

With this approach, I still abided by the one vital rule of biographies: tell the story chronologically. Otherwise, readers can’t follow it.

Once the author has organized the book, the writing begins. Yes, now the author can say “I’m writing a biography” and mean it. But it’s far from the fun, slapdash life that some people envision. Drudgery soon sets in as the writer, in a quest to become a published author, begins molding a story from a mountain of facts. What tone, what interpretations, best tell a person’s life story?

In One Woman Against War, I chose to let Rankin tell her own story. I’m a longtime journalist, accustomed to writing as fairly and impartially as I can, less inclined to hyperbole as the years pass. I do draw some conclusions in the book. Yes, Rankin was one of those rare creatures who fully committed herself to causes and beliefs. Yes, she had flaws. Yes, history shows she was a notable reformer, feminist and pacifist. She remains a famous Montanan, a renowned American pacifist and member of Congress, and a champion of woman suffrage. Readers can decide for themselves if they agree with the path she took in life.

Accuracy is a biographer’s best friend. So is storytelling. As the author, I’ve earned a few stripes. That’s why I’m confident that One Woman Against War will endure as one of the stronger Jeannette Rankin biographies. In the end, readers will decide.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)

 

2 thoughts on “Jeannette Rankin books and me: an author’s view of writing a biography

  1. I have written a ten-minute play about Jeannette for performance here in New Mexico theatre conference. Now I’m creating my solo show about her life. I’ve performed my first solo show ActYourAge throughout USA, Ireland and Switzerland. (Bethurech.com) I am excited to learn about your new biography which I will purchase today.
    Jeannette is my cousin—this project is my passion.

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