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Community Portrait: Perseverance pays as author achieves print

Community Portrait
By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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It’s many people’s dream to write a book. It was Jeanie Harris’ dream for years and one she has just accomplished with the 2010 publication of “Chasing Fireflies.” The book was years in the making. Never really knowing if she could even write one, Harris invested many hours researching her book and took writing classes to hone her craft. Her book is all about an extraordinary woman, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, who was born in 1918 and came of age in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, eventually becoming a well known California poet. McDaniel had a dream much like Harris’, a dream to be a poet. Poetry had little use around the McDaniel family farm, and McDaniel had little encouragement in her endeavors. As a child she scratched little poems in the dirt and wrote poetry on sacks. The book is about McDaniel’s upbringing in Oklahoma, her family’s move to California and fulfilling her dream of becoming a poet. Harris first met McDaniel when she worked as a mail carrier in Tulare. McDaniel’s home was a stop on Harris’ mail route. Quick hellos and short conversations quickly led to a friendship and years of weekend and holiday visits as McDaniel’s story unfolded. “When I first met her I had no idea that she was a writer,” said Harris. “She was just an elderly lady on my route that I helped a little.” Harris always liked to write, but writing a book seemed impossible. “It was Wilma that said one day, ‘What’s stopping you? If you want to write — write,’” Harris said. At the time it didn’t dawn on Harris that McDaniel’s extraordinary life just might be her first book. Harris moved up north in 1997, transferring her mail carrier job to Auburn. Slowly the idea of writing became a reality and Harris was taking college writing classes and submitting short stories to area publications. There were articles in Sierra Heritage Magazine off and on, but her first big break was a story on local youngster Amber Fry and the incredible saga of her family’s success in growing nearly 1,000-pound giant pumpkins which was published in “Highlights” children’s magazine. “That was a real big deal for me,” Harris said. Other stories followed with submissions accepted for Jack and Jill and Cricket, national children’s periodicals. Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel was never very far from Harris’ mind and she started on the book in 2002 with trips back to Tulare for interviews with McDaniel, piecing together her incredible story of overcoming the adversity of her impoverished childhood to become one of California’s well-known poets. After a few publishers rejected the book, a small publishing house already interested in McDaniel’s work published Harris’ book in 2010. “The book is mostly about her childhood, written for a younger audience, and curriculum-based, historical non-fiction,” Harris said. McDaniel did not live long enough to see the book finished, unfortunately passing away in 2007. Harris is proud of her first effort and is now busy working on her second book. Her next effort is a fiction piece about a 16-year-old boy and school life insecurities set in 1978.