Friday, July 29, 2022

7 Questions With Rebecca J. Johnston, Author of Not to Keep: A Brother's Story


Rebecca Johnston has a Bachelors in English and Modern European History and a Masters in English from the University of Texas at Tyler. Currently Rebecca is pursuing a doctoral degree from the University of Exeter while also serving as the Vice President of the Florida Hemingway Society. She has had academic articles published both nationally and internationally, and she has received research grants from the Hemingway Society and the JFK Library in Boston. Rebecca is an English Professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, while living nearby on an island off the coast of Florida. 

1. How and when did you get hooked on history?

I have enjoyed reading historical fiction for as long as I can remember. That was the beginning of my love for history. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I had an opportunity to
take a class on the First World War, followed by a class on the Second World War. My grandfather was born in 1895 and served in France in the First World War. I jumped at the chance to
understand the war of the grandfather I never knew. That class was all it took. I was hooked. I ended up earning a double major in English Literature and Language and Modern European
History. I decided which of those to make into a career by applying to graduate programs for both and seeing which accepted me.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

History has played a tremendous role in my personal life. I am fascinated by history and love to read historical fiction and non-fiction. My love for history is closely tied to not getting the chance
to know my grandfather who was married to the world’s best grandmother. On the other side of my family, my grandfather served in the Second World War and his family was stationed in
Occupied Japan after the war. These personal connections fascinate me. I also remember spending summer days in my childhood out in the woods finding arrowheads and wondering
about the people groups who lived before me.

3. How does history play a part of your professional life/career?

Despite my rejection from the University of Florida’s graduate program (Go Noles!), I was able to ground my Master’s thesis in history with help from the wonderful professors in the English Department at the University of Texas at Tyler. While teaching English in Slovenia, my students told me Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms was partially set in Slovenia, not Italy. I had to know more. This led me to researching the novel along the Italian Front of the First World War twice in person, thanks to grants and fellowships from the Hemingway Society. My current research,
which is working towards my doctorate from the University of Exeter, involves historically placing forgotten American First World War poetry. To this end, my doctoral supervisors are poetry expert
Dr Tim Kendall and historian Dr Catriona Pennell.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

We cannot know our county’s mistakes without studying history. Without knowing those mistakes, we are likely to repeat them. Also, as an English professor, I believe we cannot fully
understand classic literature without a solid understanding of the history and culture of the era it was written in. As a very basic example, how could we understand Paul Simon’s “Cecelia”
properly without knowing that Cecelia is the patron saint of music and musicians?

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I love the history of the First World War. As I mentioned previously, much of the reasoning ties into my grandfather’s experiences. I also believe the twentieth century could be called a
one hundred years’ war. All wars of that century can be traced back to the First World War. How can we understand modern history without an understanding of what started so much of the
twentieth century? Furthermore, so many men came back from that war broken, changed, and misunderstood. They deserve to be remembered. Furthermore, without remembering them we will
not fully understand the generation that they raised.

6. How did you come up with the idea for Not to Keep: A Brother’s Story?

I was researching the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 for a presentation I was giving at Raul Villareal’s Hemingway conference at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Hemingway mentioned the veterans who died in that hurricane in his novel To Have and Have Not. Hemingway helped remove bodies from the
trees and the water in the aftermath of the storm before the government was able to get help to the area. He was disturbed by the loss of life and the lack of governmental concern. I wanted this portion of history to reach a broader audience, and I believe historical fiction reaches more readers than non-fiction does. For years prior to my research into the hurricane, I had been running weekly with a Goldstar friend. I wanted to tell the story of a Goldstar family and have my readers feel and see what it is like to lose a family member and have the community move on from a loss the Goldstar family will never move on from. As there were also American Goldstar families in the First World War, I
combined the two ideas into one story.

7. What do you hope readers take away from Not to Keep?

I hope they walk away with a better understanding of Goldstar families and US veterans. I hope individuals, churches, and communities become more patient with those who come back different from the wars we asked them to serve in. I also hope they gain a fuller understanding of the horrible acts of Patton, Eisenhower and MacArthur in the Bonus Army and FDR’s role in denying a hurricane shelter to the vets stationed in the Keys.

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