Murphy, Jim

Young Jim Murphy’s big brother had a copy of a book that intrigued the eighth-grade future author. When his brother was finished, Jim got the book and dived in but his teacher had other ideas, telling Jim that it was “too mature and difficult” and that he “wouldn’t understand it.” Jim recalls “Of course, that sounded like an insult and a challenge to me so I read it at home and proudly reported this to my fellow classmates.” The book? A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Fast forward to the present and Jim is still reporting on difficult and challenging subjects. The only difference now is that instead of a stern teacher telling him he’s not ready for such difficult material, teachers are using his books to communicate the drama and wonder of history.

Jim Murphy’s books often present a moment of time and use it as a microcosm of the world at that moment. “When I do research I’m always looking for a sequence of events that can be shaped into a dramatic story,” he explains. The Crossing “…opens with Washington being appointed commander of the army and expressing his own self-doubts (Yes, even George Washington had doubts about his abilities); we then follow him to the disastrous campaign in Brooklyn, up to another drubbing in White Plains, back down to the fall of Fort Washington, and his retreat through New Jersey.” Murphy debunks the myth and shows the man. “By the time he reached Pennsylvania, his army had gone from 20,000 to just over 2,000 (mostly through desertion) and the Revolution looked as if it might collapse completely. The British certainly thought so and so did thousands of his soldiers and many members of Congress.”

The drama comes from the fact that we know how the story ends. Murphy makes that conclusion all the more satisfying because he helps the reader to truly understand the obstacles: “With the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton, Washington and his few remaining troops managed to turn the situation around–It makes for a compact, exciting story and even includes Washington rallying his men at Princeton in the face of British musket fire.”

Jim Murphy doesn’t pull his punches – Washington is not always right, not always indomitable. “Most of us grow up with a fixed image of George Washington–wise and regal (though not autocratic), above the fray, unemotional but heroic, in charge, a born leader and so forth. It’s a great image, but an incomplete one,” notes the author. In the beginning months of the war, Washington’s lack of formal military training was evident in how he defended Manhattan Island and the surrounding area. While his officers and men respected him, “they also disappointed him, often disobeyed orders, and sometimes talked against him to undermine his command.” How does an author know this from his vantage point more than 200 years in the future? “A good deal of this I knew from previous research, but I did learn new things as I got deeper into The Crossing. For example, Murphy discovered that “Washington had no idea how many British and Hessian soldiers had been landed on Long Island because he didn’t want to foot the feed bill for his scouts’ horses; instead, he directed a group of Long Island militia men to scout the enemy–only they rode off instead to find some potatoes. Amazing.” Yet, “The good news is that Washington managed to hold on to his job as commander and learned from his mistakes,” concludes Murphy.

One can see the upper elementary reader who loves The Crossing being equally entranced by David McCullough’s 1776 in a few years. Murphy hopes that his books will be stepping stones in a path of lifelong reading.” To accomplish this, he works “to create reader friendly texts that convey information but are also dramatic, passionate, and (hopefully) page turners.” The enthusiasm in his voice spills out as he exclaims that “I want readers to experience our history as if they are actually there right in the middle of the action–if I can get readers to see history as an exciting action story, I think they’ll be eager to read McCullough or McPherson or Fischer or any of the other great writers of American history.”

Given that the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal was created to recognize outstanding nonfiction, it is no surprise that Jim Murphy has been honored twice by the Sibert committee, receiving Honor recognition for Blizzard: The Storm that Changed America and taking home the Medal for An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Murphy recalls that “I felt very lucky and honored when I learned I’d received a Sibert Award and a Sibert Honor Book Award. The award focuses on all aspects of a nonfiction book–the way the subject is presented, the accuracy of the information, how the text is written, the way the book is designed and so much more. It’s a rigorous test for any book to pass and when one of mine manages to make the list I am always surprised (there are a lot of very good nonfiction writers out there) and always thankful.”

Murphy’s eighth-grade teacher motivated him to read by forbidding him to read A Farewell to Arms. Jim Murphy also remembers his ninth-grade history teacher, Mr. Palino, who “stood in front of the class on the very first day of school and announced in a loud voice: “Every Indian (and he meant Native-American) wasn’t a bad person.'” More than fifty years later, Jim Murphy points to that moment as “a real eye-opener and made me realize that history was full of secrets and surprises and that my job was to hunt them out.”

         – Interviewed by Ellen Myrick, October 2010



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