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The story behind reprinting “Death Beyond the Willows”

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Greg Peck
December 11, 2013

In 1927, Johnny Pirkl, a handsome young farmer from a large family in the Dane County community of Marshall, proposed to Hazel Ferguson, only child to a farm family from neighboring Cottage Grove. Her parents objected because Johnny was Catholic and Hazel was not. What followed this clash of religions was a shocking wedding-night tragedy in Portage that made national news and left both families grieving for decades.

“Death Beyond the Willows,” my book about this tragedy, debuted in 2005, about the time I joined the Wisconsin Writers Association. I sold almost 2,000 copies of the book myself by placing it in key stores, doing signings and giving speeches at libraries, book clubs, historical societies, genealogy clubs, schools and even a church group. My publisher, a small company up north, did little or nothing to promote the book. In 2009, as the number of available copies dwindled, I reacquired the rights back from that publisher.

Still, I had little hope that I'd have a chance to reprint it. When I joined the WWA Board of Directors, however, I got to know Andy Davis. He lives in Houston, Minn., across the Mississippi River from La Crosse. During discussions at conferences, he told me he was starting his own company, Rattlesnake Valley Publishing. He said if I wanted my book republished, he could help me. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to take that on.

We struck a deal. He's a very creative fiction writer, and I agreed to copy edit his book of short stories, and in exchange he agreed to help me republish my book using his company. It seemed like a fair deal. As it turned out, he spent far more time on my project than I did on his.

We wanted a new cover that wasn't quite so dark and dreary. Yes, a terrible tragedy is the focal point of my book, but we wanted a more contemporary look. I turned to Gazette graphic artist Tony DiNicola. Tony quickly created the impressive new cover design last winter.

Still, Andy and I made many more improvements throughout the book. We tried to better position the 40 or so photos with the accompanying text. We added one important photo. We included four maps so readers better understand communities and groups of farms. We tucked the extensive Pirkl family tree across two pages. I re-edited the manuscript, making minor adjustments. Essentially, it's the same story with small changes. I did, however, add an Afterword. This, in part, tells about three bus tours my book inspired and that I narrated for the Marshall Area Historical Society, and three short, coincidental stories I gathered while compiling the narration that bring the entire story full circle in an eerie way.

Working with all those images, and adding more graphic elements, took more time than Andy and I imagined. We used CreateSpace,  an Amazon subsidiary, because this print-on-demand company can provide small press runs at reasonable prices. Andy and I wound up getting five proofs before we had everything looking just right and were ready to order books. Finally, 10 boxes arrived at my house just before Thanksgiving.

For me, a story from 1927 became an odyssey that began in 1997. That's when Madison TV stations covered a 70th memorial service for this couple, who wed in the same Marshall church I attended as a child. In the TV coverage, I saw in the church pews my father and an uncle. I never had heard of the tragedy. The Pirkls aren't my relatives. I grew up in the village, and the Pirkl family quietly labored at a clutch of farm buildings obscured by a knoll and across County T from where my father and his siblings were raised. By 1997, one of Johnny Pirkl's nieces, who grew up across the road from my dad, happened to live in Janesville. I called her and suggested I was interested in researching the story of her Uncle Johnny and Aunt Hazel with the idea of writing a book about their life story. And so began years of research.

I'm happy to announce that I'll be signing copies of the newly revised “Death Beyond the Willows,” from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Book World, 2451 Milton Ave., Janesville. I'm also open to giving more talks and presentations about the book.

The cover price remains $16.95. The book is also available through amazon.com, and it might make a nice Christmas gift. For $20, including shipping, I can send a signed copy anywhere. Write to me at 1421 Eastwood Ave., Janesville, WI 53545. Or contact me at gregmpeck@sbcglobal.net.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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