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All Standing: A New Book by Kathryn Miles, Professor of Environmental Writing

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All Standing is the story of the Irish Potato Famine, chronicling the ship Jeanie Johnston and the life of Nicholas Reilly, born during the vessel’s inaugural voyage.  The book follows the young boy, his fellow passengers and the heroic crewmembers that conveyed them to safety. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 claimed over a million lives, and another million attempted to flee by boarding one of the five thousand aptly named “coffin ships.”  More than 100,000 people died aboard these coffin ships, and yet the Jeanie Johnston was the one humble vessel – and only one – that never lost a passenger.

Miles’ professorial emphasis and dedication to advancing the narrative of sustainability science ties in nicely with the book’s subject matter. A professor of environmental writing and editor-in-chief of Hawk & Handsaw, her courses include narrative nonfiction, creative writing, environmental journalism, and writing for publication. “The experience of writing All Standing and Adventures with Ari (her first book) inform all of these classes: not only can I bring my work in the publishing industry to bear in class lectures and discussions, but I’m able to share in my students’ writing process in a real and immediate way," says Miles. "On the surface, writing can seem like a lonely and solitary endeavor.  But the truth of the matter is that we all experience the same frustration of writer’s block and joy of discovery.  It’s important to be able to share that.”

When researching and writing All Standing, Miles learned that most historians and genealogists assumed the main character, Nicholas, had died. “In a moment of great serendipity, I was able to track down some of his living relatives," she recalls.  "They knew about his life once he arrived in America, but had no idea how he got here.  I knew that part of the story, but not what became of him.  We had a profoundly moving first phone call that lasted hours, and we’re still in touch.”

The main challenge in writing her book was to make the little-known historical figures interesting. Her research materials were limited to archival documents and newspaper microfilm. “Piece by piece, I had to make all of the bits of information come alive for the readers," says Miles.  "It took four years and the generous help of dozens of librarians and archivists.  But it was worth it.  All along, I was motivated by the realization that these are stories that must be told."

The message that Miles would like her readers to take away is, more than anything, that the passengers’ story is one of courage – of being willing to wager one’s life on the chance to be free.  “It’s a story I think any American can identify with.  We are a nation of immigrants, and our collective identity is tied to the bravery and fortitude of our ancestors.  In a lot of ways, I think All Standing points to a collective mythology we all share.”

Monday, October 15, 2012