An interview with Tara Johnson

Interview by Mariah Franklin

What inspired the storyline and characters found in Where Dandelions Bloom?

The inspiration for Where Dandelions Bloom was birthed as I read the journal and multiple biographies of Sarah “Emma” Edmonds. This incredible woman enlisted as a female during the Civil War to escape her abusive father. Emma, a hard-working farmgirl, found herself disguised as a male and teaching the young city-bred recruits how to load and aim a gun. Her abilities were so impressive, she was soon pressed into the delicate but grueling work of spying for Allan Pinkerton, head of President Lincoln’s Intelligence Service. Yet despite her fiery independence and bravado, Emma carried deep scars from her childhood, and that was the story I wanted to tell. Cassie Kendrick is a fictional character inspired by the wounds and fortitude of countless women like Emma who enlisted to hide from their pasts or escape futures more terrifying than the horrors of war.

What is your favorite type of character to write? Why?

My favorite characters to write are the funny comic relief types…the endearing, lovable characters who can lighten the dark moments with a quirky observation and common sense. They breathe such beauty and joy into each story.

What role does faith play in this story?

Cassie leaves everything she’s known and throws herself time and again into danger, trusting that God will show her the next step, even when the pathway seems dark. Although she struggles with deep wounds, her childlike faith in His ability to carry her through impossible situations gives her the courage she needs to face down formidable enemies.

Tell us about some of the themes in the book.

Cassie faces abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Gabriel Avery has grown up in the slums of New York, unable to care for his ill parents, or erase the ugliness from the world around him. Both he and Cassie struggle with the bitter sting of unforgiveness— both with forgiving the ones who have hurt them and with being able to forgive themselves for poor decisions they’ve made. Another central theme in Where Dandelions Bloom is relentless hope, especially amid pain.

How do you hope these themes will resonate with and challenge your readers?

All of us have struggled with forgiving someone who has hurt us or our loved ones. The inability to let go of the offense, to replay it over and over, or even to seek retribution is a very real emotion. Harder yet is forgiving ourselves when we mess up. I want my readers to know there is freedom and life-changing power in forgiveness beyond anything they can imagine. I also want them to know there is hope, even in the darkest time oftheir life. Tragedy often births beauty, though our eyes may be blind to it at times. So much of how we live our life depends on our perspective.

How is the perspective of Where Dandelions Bloom unique compared to other novels in the Civil War genre?

There have been some amazing novels and biographies written around heroic women of Civil War, but I believe Where Dandelions Bloom is unique because it delves deeply into the emotions and wounds driving the choices these women made, as well as the trauma they endured while serving.

What is the value of fiction and storytelling in today’s society?

There is a wonderful Israeli folktale about Story and Truth that goes something like this: Story and Truth both decided to walk down the streets of their village to see who could attract the most attention. Story was greeted with smiles and joy everywhere she went, but to Truth’s dismay, the villagers cast suspicious looks her way and even turned their backs on her. Thinking her wardrobe must be the problem, she cast off all her clothes and strolled down the street as naked Truth. Doors slammed. People shouted. Truth was in tears.
“Why do they reject me? I’m Truth! I’m honest! They need me.”
Story smiled. “Yes, they do need you. Here. Wrap yourself in my clothes. When you are wrapped in the clothing of Story, everyone will accept you. I promise.” Truth discovered when she was clothed in Story’s pretty attire, she was welcomed with open arms.

Story has a beautiful way of revealing deep, hidden and raw things to our hearts and minds in an incredibly impactful way. Our society is so fast-paced, so cluttered, and we are lied to so often, that people are yearning for truth…but truth is hard to accept in its raw form. Wrapped in story, it tugs the heart and transforms lives. It forces us to put down the cellphone, the to-do lists and just breathe in what our spirits are crying for.

Tell us about some of your upcoming projects. 

I just finished the draft for my next noel with Tyndale, tentatively titled A Song for Cadence. It’s a story loosely based on the life of Elida Rumsey, a woman denied the opportunity to nurse wounded soldiers by Dorothea Dix but found a way by singing her way into the hospitals. Her life becomes entangled with a surgeon battling a powerful enemy…a secret society determined to end the clandestine activities the surgeon has unknowingly led to Cadence’s door.
I’m also finishing up the draft of a second story based on Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley. The working title is When Fireflies Dance and explores the life of a deserter from the Union army, one of Sheridan’s personal spies, who unknowingly seeks shelter in one of the homes he helped destroy. This story has been the most difficult and raw for me to pen but I pray my readers will be able to grasp the life-transforming truth that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. He removes sin as far as the east is from the west.

What role did photography play in the Civil War?

The American Civil War was the first war in history to have photography deliver the reality and horrors of war directly to the public through newspaper printings, album cards, and stereographs. Photographers would follow troops in their own traveling darkrooms, complete with chemicals and supplies needed to carry out the complexities of the latest photographic achievement at that time: the wet plate process. Traveling with, or near, the soldiers allowed the photographers to take pictures the soldiers could send home as keepsakes to their mothers and sweethearts. Military leaders on both sides hired photographers to gain intelligence about enemy placement, roads, bridges, railroads, and land slope.

Even more telling, it allowed photographers, for the first time, to capture images of the dead and wounded immediately after battle. When renowned photographer Alexander Gardner displayed his photographs of the dead of Antietam, it set society back on its heels. They couldn’t get over their shock of the brutality of it. Opinions changed. Alliances shifted. Editorial pieces in newspapers reflected upheavals in thinking based on the images being shared. In short, photography shifted public opinion. It was no longer something they could ignore. Mathew Brady, the most celebrated photographer at that time, said this: “My greatest aim has been to advance the art of photography and to make it what I think I have, a great and truthful medium of history.”

Are any of the characters based on historical figures from the Civil War? What did researching these lives teach you?

Several aspects of Cassie’s story are based on the life of Sarah Emma Edmonds. Reading Emma’s journal, as well as several other Civil War women, taught me what it truly means to have courage. They left everything—their homes, family, and identity—to forge a new life. Sometimes they enlisted out of fear. Others served out of a sense of patriotic duty. One woman couldn’t bear to be away from her new husband and fought alongside him, disguised as a male the entire time. Each woman was different yet their resilience and grit was the same. Renowned photographer Mathew Brady also makes a cameo as himself. Including him as Gabriel’s mentor and employer was so much fun but it took an incredible amount of researcher. Writing a cameo is difficult because I feel a great responsibility to write a historical figure, not a character, as accurately as possible. Mathew Brady adds a special touch to Where Dandelions Bloom. I was especially impressed with his earnest strive for truth, knowing he was playing a great part in history.