From the time she begged her older sister, then in first grade, to teach her how to read, Mary Cronk Farrell has been a voracious reader.
“I have never stopped,” she said with a laugh.
As a child, she loved historical fiction and mysteries, like the quintessential Nancy Drew series.
Now, Cronk Farrell writes the kind of books she wanted to read as a child: nonfiction on often-overlooked women in history.
Her most recent book is titled, “Close-Up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam.”
Piles of books everywhere
As a child in Deming, Washington, a tiny town in the shadow of Mt. Baker, Cronk Farrell read constantly.
Her family was full of readers too, she said. As an adult her habit of keeping piles of books around her home was something she thought of as an odd quirk but when she went to visit her aunt she was reminded that it’s inherited .
“I walked in and there were piles of books everywhere and I was like ‘OK, this is not a problem, this is who I am,’ ” Cronk Farrell said.
When she thought about choosing a career, her mom would always chime in to say, “you’re going to be an author,” Cronk Farrell recalls.
At the time, Cronk Farrell thought of authors as people sitting at a typewriter all day.
“I just thought it would be too boring and I just couldn’t see myself doing that,” Cronk Farrell said.
On a college visit to Gonzaga University, she met Rod Clefton a professor in the communications school.
Clefton shared his vision of how “journalism could be a force for good,” Cronk Farrell said, tearing up at the memory.
She enrolled in Gonzaga the next year.
“Journalism was definitely exciting,” Cronk Farrell said. “I found it to be very fun, just the whole nature of the news and being there in the moment and trying to get the story.”
She worked at KXLY for about six years before moving to Seattle then returning to KXLY. Then a mother of three, Cronk Farrell decided to focus on raising her children and stepped back from broadcast journalism.
She began writing features for local publications on a freelance basis with the idea in the back of her mind that one day when she retired she would write children’s books.
“I thought well, let me get started now,” Cronk Farrell said.
‘The learning curve was long’
Cronk Farrell attended a workshop by a local writer, found a writing group, and joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
She intended to write picture books but quickly found she was naturally a long-form writer, Cronk Farrell said.
Quickly she realized “just because you know how to write for TV news and feature articles, does not mean you know how to write children’s books,” Cronk Farrell said.
The more she learned about the publishing industry, Cronk Farrell realized it was going to be a “really long journey,” to get a book published.
“I was really glad I had not waited until I was retired to begin,” Cronk Farrell said.
Her first book, “Daughters of the Desert: Stories of Remarkable women from Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions” was published in 2005.
“It’s just amazing to hold a book in your hands that is your own,” Cronk Farrell said.
Then she began working on historical fiction for teens in the form of “Fire in the Hole!” a story about a north Idaho union miner in the late 1890s.
While the book got good reviews and won awards, it wasn’t a great seller, Cronk Farrell said. She submitted a second novel to her editor but it wasn’t accepted.
She continued to work on books but the recession of 2008 had limited the number of works publishers were accepting, Cronk Farrell said.
About that time, she stumbled upon the story of Fannie Sellins, a union activist in the early 1900s. She had written a manuscript about her but couldn’t find anyone to buy it.
Publishers “would rather have a new angle on George Washington than publish a book on an unknown person,” Cronk Farrell said.
In the midst of that frustration, her cousin asked her to read her paper on the dozens of American military nurses who were captured by the Japanese during World War II and spent years in prison camps.
“I couldn’t not believe I had never heard of these women,” she said.
At the time there were just two books written about the nurses, which Cronk Farrell promptly ordered and read as fast as she could.
“It was so incredible I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was just like this has got to be a book. People need to know about these women.”
Cronk Farrell had just read a book called “Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream” by Tanya Lee Stone and hoped to write about the nurses in a similar style.
She took the book to her agent, “to prove that books could be written about women whose names we don’t know,” Cronk Farrell said.
Her agent loved the idea. Cronk Farrell’s book “Pure Grit: How American WWII Nurses Survived Battle & Prison Camp in the Pacific” was published in 2014.
Not long after she sold her now 10-year-old manuscript on Sellins which was published in 2016 as “Fannie Never Flinched: One Woman’s Courage in the Struggle for American Labor Union Rights.”
“For me, it’s really about these women and that I feel like everybody should know about them,” Cronk Farrell said, tearfully. “Most of them were really cutting across the grain as far as what was acceptable for women.”
Cronk Farrell started writing blog posts about other female unsung heroes and discovered Leroy.
“It was like opening a floodgate of incredible,” she said.
The foundation that owns Leroy’s photos, Donation Catherine Leroy, allowed Cronk Farrell to use many of Leroy’s images in the book which Cronk Farrell hopes teaches young people two lessons.
“Catherine (Leroy) was crazy successful at a very young age in a very short time,” Cronk Farrell said. “And the reason she was was because she wanted something and she worked very hard to get it.”
Leroy had natural talent but she wouldn’t have been able to succeed in the male dominated field of war photography without her “guts and courage,” Cronk Farrell said.
Cronk Farrell hopes young people will learn from Leroy’s story that “to succeed at anything important takes a lot of determination, hard work, and belief in yourself.”
She also hopes to shed a light on the importance of journalism to democracy, especially at a time when partisanship and opinion dominate much of modern media.
“This young woman was willing to die to take the pictures that would show the world what was happening in Vietnam,” Cronk Farrell said. “You can hold that up to someone who gets on a talk show and pontificates and you can see that there is a very large difference. There’s no comparison in my mind between those two things. I hope this book will help young people get clarity on that.”
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