By Kristin Tubb
Growing up, I once told my father that I wanted to “own NASA.” Monetary and logistical issues aside, this seemed like an excellent career path to pursue. Space shuttles! Space stations! And, well . . . Space!
It was with much regret that I left this dream behind, and focused instead on the more realistic dream of studying to become an Aerospace Engineer at Auburn University. Alas, this was not to be my calling, either, as I consistently fell asleep during my classes and while reading my textbooks. (I took this as a sign. Rightfully so.)
Many years and numerous job changes later, I found myself nodding eagerly when editor Kathryn Knight at Dalmatian Press asked me to write an elementary-school-age activity book about space.
“It’ll be the universe, in 64 pages,” she said. I might’ve squealed.
The piecing together of the universe began. Constellations and black holes and meteors. When I reached the topic of comets, I started with the one comet I knew: Halley’s Comet. Within minutes of researching Halley’s Comet, I discovered that it travelled so close to our planet in the spring of 1910, Earth actually passed through the comet’s tail. People who lived in that time knew that Halley’s Comet was approaching, knew that Earth would pass through its tail, but no one knew—not exactly—what to expect. People began prophesying the end of days. And with that sniff of fear, out came the con artists.
Lead umbrellas. Gas masks. Trips to the moon. And comet pills, selling in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a dollar per. All of these items were hawked in the spring of 1910 by con artists and snake oil salesmen looking to turn a quick buck. Looking to cash in on fear. Reading those words—comet pills—I knew it was a novel I’d like to write.
I finished the book for Dalmatian Press (titled Space: An A+ Workbook), and started researching the fear that led up to May 18 and 19, 1910—the days that Earth was in the tail of Halley’s Comet. The event has been called the world’s first case of mass hysteria; it was the first time there was ample enough media to alert most of the world’s population to this kind of event. (And by media, we’re talking newspapers. Radios weren’t yet widely in use.)
Headlines read “Hey! Look Out! The Comet’s Tail is Coming Fast” and “Whole Science World Waits Comet’s Tail As It Sweeps Earth” and “Earth Ready to Enter Tail of Comet.” But despite the fact that the world’s top scientists promised that no danger would befall Earth, the citizens of our dear planet believed what they wanted to believe.
Farmers refused to plant or tend to their crops. People donated all their belongings to their churches in penance. Rumors started that being submerged in water would keep you safe, and rentals of U-boats and submarines soared.
Yet knowing all of these fantastic (and true!) details, I still needed a backdrop for my main character, Hope McDaniels. Why would she want to sell comet pills? It’s difficult to write a character who is a con artist and still manage to make her likeable. I needed Hope to be desperate.
Since the story took place in 1910, I started researching vaudeville as a possible career for 13-year-old Hope. (It was plausible she’d have a career at 13. In 1910, most children studied to around age 11 before leaving school to find work.) Vaudevillans had a grueling schedule—many of them didn’t even own a home or rent an apartment, they travelled so much. They lived in sleeper cars and boarding houses and performed the same act four times a day, every day, except for days on the rails.
Writing Selling Hope was a rare opportunity to combine my interests in space, live entertainment and history. The research was, in some parts, so funny, so breathtaking, so scary and so touching that you can guarantee I never fell asleep over those books.
(And for the record: writing history for kids? Much better than owning NASA.)
Selling Hope is Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s second work of historical fiction for young readers. Her debut novel, Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, tells the story of families in Tennessee’s historic Cades Cove who were displaced by the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tubb and her family live near Nashville.