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Marie McSwigan

MY BOOK, FIVE ON A MERRY-GO-ROUND (Dutton, 1944), deals with one family's solution to the housing shortage. When no other shelter opened, the family took up residence in an abandoned carousel. They were fortunate to find one. As everyone knows, and none better than I from an amusement park family, such unused, uncared-for equipment is rarer than uranium.

This scarcity a fourth grader failed to consider in a book report of the work. Nonetheless, because of the merits of his pithy prose, he won an honorable mention in a townwide contest of the fourth grades of fourteen public and parochial schools. He wrote but a page and a quarter, perhaps twenty sentences. He, moreover, achieved what many writers fail in, a smash finish. He concluded his report:

"This is a good book. Everyone should read it. They should read it because it is good to know that in those days of no houses there were always merry-go-rounds."

He did not know that he was doing it, but I think he pin-pointed the theme of this and of all my books, resourcefulness. In All Aboard for Freedom (Dutton, 1954), I stated it plainly both in English and in the Czech tongue of my characters. The Czechs have a national proverb, a national slogan, "Do the best you can and God will prosper your efforts."

With this I am in accord. It is good for people to help themselves rather than to wait to be helped. I have asked myself if I value this attitude because I was born in Pennsylvania with its Independence Hall, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg. I know that resourcefulness is no state or national monopoly. I know it is inherent in man as indeed my books claim with their settings in many parts of the world. Nonetheless my interest could come from my surroundings. A fellow townsman could be an influence, a tough little Scot with meager schooling but with a sense of values. This is not the place to go into my debt to Andrew Carnegie for his libraries and for other bounties. It is enough to say that my debt is substantial.

Like other children, I filled my composition books with my screeds. It was not until I got to the University of Pittsburgh, however, that writing became an obsession. After three years of student publication I found, on graduation, that there was only one calling I wanted to follow, newspaper work.

I had difficulty persuading an editor that I would not be a mere liability but a handicap. Again and again I tried to make one see that I was the exact person his staff needed. Only when I tried another measure did I strike a spark in a flinty surface.

Now, despite my theme of resourcefulness, I did not regard myself as a resourceful woman. In one instance alone I effected a coup. No newspaper had mentioned it; rather I learned by accident that Monsignor (now Cardinal) Eugene Tisserant, then head of the Vatican Library, was in town to address Carnegie librarians, (another debt to Andrew Carnegie). I thought that if I would interview him and write the account, the editor might see my claim in a new light. I did meet Monsignor Tisserant. He was most gracious. To this day I have kept his calling card. I was pleased when the account was printed exactly as I wrote it. Even with the curiosa of newspaper style at that time, there were no changes. I thereupon became a member of the editorial staff of the Pittsburgh Press of the Scripps-Howard chain.

I worked five years for Scripps-Howard and a year for Hearst on the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. I then did publicity for organizations sublime and ridiculous: Kennywood, an amusement park, and the Carnegie Institute Fine Arts Department--another bow to the founder. I also did publicity for the University of Pittsburgh for six years, two of them as director of public relations.

I like newspaper and publicity work because of the immediacy. A job must be done, and one sits down and does it. I am no longer thus employed so that I can be free for creative writing.

Besides ten children's books, I have written two adult biographies: Shy Hooks, the life of primitive painter John Kane, and Athlete of Christ (Newman, 1959), the life of St. Nicholas of Flue, Switzerland's patron saint.

Some of my children's books are based on actual happenings. Over and over, an Associated Press dispatch or one from United-International has set me to wondering: What kind of patriots were those Norwegians who saved their gold by having their children sled it down a mountain past the occupation forces, as I subsequently made my characters do in Snow Treasure? Or what was he like, the real 'sixteen-year-old who, on a homemade portable radio transmitter, broadcast resistance against the Japanese as did my Juan of Manila? Or, what about those Czechs who stole a railway train and drove it into West Germany, as mine would do in All Aboard for Freedom?

These stories came out of the newspapers. The press, however, prints much more than about the deeds of resourceful people. Why did I choose these events? Well, in the geography of the thirteen colonies, Pennsylvania is the Keystone State. Similarly, could not resourcefulness be the spiritual keystone of our heritage?


EDITOR'S NOTE: Besides the titles noted in her sketch, Miss McSwigan's books Include these Dutton releases: Our Town Has a Circus (1949), Binnie Latches On (1950), The News Is Good (1952), Three's a Crowd (1953), and Small Miracle at Lourdes (1958).

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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