Inspiration for local man's book drawn from Amish school killings

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

— Like so many others, Richard Masterson was deeply troubled by the 2006 killings of children in Lancaster County, Pa.

A man walked into a one-room schoolhouse and killed five Amish girls, ages 6 to 13, before taking his own life.

"It bothered me tremendously," Masterson said. "To have them die like that challenged my basic beliefs in everything. I still can't get it out of my head."

The retired Janesville teacher did what many people do to wrestle with trauma: He began writing.

By the time he finished his latest book, "Swamp Girl," another schoolhouse tragedy had taken place. In Newtown, Conn., a young man fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Masterson was so moved by the incident that he dedicated his 280-page novel to Victoria Soto "and the angels of Sandy Hook elementary." Soto was the 27-year-old teacher who died trying to shield her children from the gunman.

"Once again, it brought me to tears when I thought about those little ones," said Masterson, who has two granddaughters, age 8 and 10. "If I have any money from the book, it will go to the funds for Sandy Hook Elementary School."

He felt compelled to address the vulnerability of children.

Within the pages of his self-published book, he created a 10-year-old superhero named Mary Reed who has secret powers to shield children from evil and provide a place where they are safe from unspeakable harm. Young Mary lives in northern Wisconsin in the late 1940s. She attends a one-room school, which is pivotal to the story.

Masterson never attended one-room schools, but he understands how important they were for rural families. He is fascinated by their history.

"They were places where children could get away from the routines of their normal lives and the drudgery of working on the farm," he said. "They were their windows to the world."

Masterson's wife, Mary, attended a one-room school a mile down the road from her rural village in northern Wisconsin, and she shared stories about how the school influenced people's lives.

When the couple moved into their Janesville home, Masterson created a one-room schoolhouse in the basement for his granddaughters.

"We wanted to do something unique, where they could read out loud and where we could play different roles," Masterson said.

He even painted a special area for recess, where the girls can play hopscotch and ride their bikes.

Masterson has a number of "Swamp Girl" talks lined up this summer, including one that focuses on the history of the one-room schoolhouses in Wisconsin.

He has been fascinated with history his entire life, and he taught American history at Parker High School for 15 years. He also taught in Illinois and later took a school administration job in Arizona.

Masterson is the author of a historical novel, "Salisbury," based on the exploits of a Union soldier in the Civil War.

"Swamp Girl" originally was classified in the young-adult genre, but Masterson said he is getting positive responses from adult readers as well—especially parents.

"It's a fun story for the young and the young at heart," he said.

Masterson hopes the tragedy-inspired book will leave people with the feeling that goodness will prevail.

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 10:31 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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