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Alumna’s books bring history to life for young readers

Mary Peace Finley writes historical novels for young adult readers. Photo courtesy of Mary Peace Finley.

Mary Peace Finley has milked a trout, traveled the Santa Fe Trail in a wagon and eaten buffalo cooked in a primitive underground oven, all in the name of research for her award-winning young adult books.

“I do what my characters do, and it is a hoot,” says the Boulder, Colo., based author. “I wrote a story about a girl who wants to try out everything there is to do before she grows up so she’ll know what to do when she gets older. And she decides she is fascinated by the fish hatchery. I went to a fish hatchery, and the next thing I knew I was in the raceway in waders up to my armpits, holding a Tasmanian rainbow trout under my arm and milking eggs out of it.”

It’s all in a day’s work for Finley (BA ’64), who grew up in southeastern Colorado and has made a career out of writing young adult historical novels set in the West. Her latest, The Midnight Ride of Blackwell Station (Filter Press, 2010), is based on the true story of a railroad station that was hijacked in 1886 and set down three miles away, in a spot that overnight became the town of Lamar, Colo.

The book hasn’t won any awards yet, but if Finley’s past titles are any indication, it probably will. Her 2004 book Meadow Lark (Filter Press) won the Colorado Book Award, 1993’s Soaring Eagle (Simon & Schuster) won the Top Hand Award from the Colorado Authors League, and White Grizzly (Filter Press, 2003) nabbed a Benjamin Franklin Award from the Publishers Marketing Association.

It’s an impressive list of accolades for an author who didn’t know she wanted to write until she was 33.

“I married [into] a family with half-grown kids, and I felt I needed to be home for the kids’ sake,” Finley says. “I needed to find a way to nourish myself. I’d always enjoyed writing letters, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try my hand at writing.’ I didn’t know beans about writing fiction, but I started taking continuing-ed classes at CU-Boulder, and I got into the world of writing for children.”

She worked for 10 years before she got anything published, but once she hit her stride she quickly built up a substantial catalog. Her first “significant” book, Soaring Eagle, turned out to be the beginning of the acclaimed Sante Fe Trail trilogy about a young white boy, Julio Montoya, raised by Mexican parents in Taos, N.M., who is searching for his roots while traveling the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s. The third book, Meadow Lark, parallels the first two and tells the story of Julio’s Mexican sister, Teresita, and her courageous search for Julio.

“Originally, I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a Mexican kid moving eastward in the time of so-called U.S. Western expansion,” she says. “It was unique, it was new — and eventually when I got a publisher, unacceptable. They would not publish it as written because I’m not Mexican.

“So I finagled the story because I did want to sell it and it was a terrific offer,” she continues. “The offer on that book was so unusual that it was written up in The Writer Magazine. It was an unsolicited, over-the-transom submission that actually got picked up.”

Soaring Eagle established Finley as an author worth watching. She spends as much or more time researching her books as she does writing them, she says, which results in stories equally entertaining and educational. Though Soaring Eagle got lost in the shuffle of a Simon & Schuster corporate restructuring, it still found an appreciative audience.

“Early on, teachers recognized the quality of my work and the accuracy of my research, and it was word of mouth — teachers, librarians, media specialists — that made these books as successful as they are,” Peace says. “My dream has always been that my novels of the Santa Fe Trail era become young adult classics in the literature of the American West.  That dream is coming true.”

To read more about the author and her books visit Finley also offers book talks and workshops for all age groups.

“My dream is that the quality of my work and the years of research that’s gone into it will lead these books into being classics for that readership at that period of time in history,” she says. “I think teachers recognized that early on, and it was word of mouth — teachers, librarians — that made the book as successful as it was.”

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