Linda Baten Johnson has spent many hours packing and unpacking as she and her husband George have lived in 20 different places in the United States and enjoyed a stint in England. Growing up in White Deer, a small Texas town, which boasts one blinking light, Linda won blue ribbons for storytelling in elementary school. She still loves telling stories. Linda’s books include The Friendship Train, Her Christmas Cowboy, Healing Scars, Orphan Train Riders-Kathleen’s Vision, and three books in the Young Texans series: Tiny’s Emancipation, Elsie and the Hurricane and Henry Goes to Texas. She co-authored Homer the Racehorse with Katherine Loughmiller, a friend who raised racehorses. Her books are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and in e-formats.
Hello, Linda. This book can be enjoyed by all ages. Please tell us about The Friendship Train. What is it about?
The Friendship Train is based on America’s generous donation of over ten thousand tons of food to starving Europeans in 1947. The train’s trip began in Los Angeles on November 7th and culminated in New York on November 18th. Pearson’s goal to collect 80 boxcars on the journey was quickly exceeded with over 700 cars filled. The humanitarian effort was completed without any government assistance.
In the book, Jimmy Burns, an eighth-grader whose brother died in World War II, wants to help the hungry people in France, but doesn’t know how. When he and his family learn about the Friendship Train, they’re quick to respond, and Jimmy and his father are selected to ride the train as representatives of the people. On the cross-country journey, the thirteen-year-old uncovers a plot to sabotage the train, but no one believes him. Jimmy relies on detective skills gained from reading Hardy Boy books to solve the mystery, to ensure the food gets to its destination, and to survive.
Adults like the history in the book and young people like the mystery.
What kind of research did you have to do for this novel?
I was able to use Drew Pearson’s documents. Watching the idea of the Friendship Train grow from idea to reality through his correspondence, through his columns, broadcasts, and records of phone calls was thrilling. Oh, Pearson was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in organizing the Friendship Train, but the nomination came the year Gandhi was assassinated, and the committee decided not to award a prize that year.
Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
That’s a strange story. When my husband and I were vacationing in Idaho, we read about a tourist attraction called the Idaho merci car. This was one of fifty boxcars sent to the United States in response to the Friendship Train of 1947. The Train of Gratitude arrived in the U.S. filled with gifts from French citizens, ranging from a little boy’s stuffed dog to an elaborate carriage. I majored in history and had never heard of either train. After returning home to Texas, I discovered Drew Pearson, the driving force behind the Friendship Train, had donated all his papers to the LBJ Presidential Library, only twenty minutes from my home. I felt this was a sign I should write a book about this story of American generosity.
Who is one of your favorite characters in this story and what do you love about him or her?
Can I have two characters? I love Jimmy and Samuel. Jimmy’s optimistic spirit and his insecurities are constantly at war. Due to all the changes in his life during this story, he grows emotionally. I found myself rooting for him to overcome his problems and I cried with him when he experienced loss. In my writing experience, characters sometimes take on a life of their own. This happened with Jimmy and he did a couple of things that surprised me.
My other favorite is Samuel, the porter on the train. He is steady, kind, perceptive, and non-judgmental. He’s the type of person who enriches the lives of everyone he encounters.
Your story sounds very intriguing. Okay, it’s time to tell us something about the real you that we’ll never forget.
My husband and I lived in a lighthouse as volunteers for the National Park Service. Squash is my favorite food. I’ve been on three TV game shows, The Price is Right, Family Feud, and Scrabble.
Wow! Now these are unforgettable experiences. Thanks, Linda, for this wonderful interview. I hope my readers will check out your new book.