When it comes to writing unique and captivating tomes, critically acclaimed Minn. author Sheila O’Connor has succeeded. In addition to being an award-winning writer of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction for children and adults, O’Connor also is a professor in the MFA program at Hamline University. Her most recent book, Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, is a delightful new book for young readers. At its core, the story celebrates an unlikely friendship between two characters—one young and one old—and is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
“I have always been a writer interested in the challenges of moving between audiences and forms—including fiction, poetry and nonfiction,” O’Connor says. “When I begin a project, I’m looking for the best container for that material, and I’m also mindful of who will be receiving the story—the readers with whom I’ll ultimately be in conversation.”
In Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, there were things O’Connor hoped to explore about friendship, war and peace, and standing up for your beliefs that she wanted to share with readers of all ages, but young readers in particular.
Beyond the content, the form of this story—an epistolary novel told entirely in letters—was likely inspired by a book O’Connor read as a child: Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster.
“Published in 1912, Daddy-Long-Legs was dated when I read it, but I was taken with the structure, the unfolding of a narrative through correspondence, and it inspired in me a love of nontraditional narrative forms,” O’Connor says.
O’Connor has a great love of story, and the discovery that takes place in the writing process. In this particular book, she was immersed in research about the Vietnam War, as well as 1968, but she was especially drawn into the research she did on conscientious objectors.
“Although most of that research didn’t end up in the book, I learned so much about conscientious objectors in both World War I and World War II, and during the war in Vietnam,” O’Connor says. “The history of conscientious objectors is a fascinating, little-known subject, and the more I learned, the more inspired I was to bring that story to life.”
O’Connor also believes in the transformative power of friendship, which was why the heart of the novel— the friendship between young Reenie Kelly and Mr. Marsworth—was most likely born out of the author’s own unlikely friendships.
“I have been the receiver of great love and wisdom from friends of all ages and backgrounds,” O’Connor says. “I think it’s that same faith in unlikely friendships that inspires Reenie Kelly to make a friend of Mr. Marsworth.”
In 1968, O’Connor was essentially the same age as the book’s protagonist, Reenie Kelly. Although intellectually O’Connor understood little about the logistics of the war, she was aware of it on an emotional and social level.
“I understood the country was divided by the war in Vietnam, the draft in particular, and I knew friends and families were being torn apart,” O’Connor says. “In America, conversations about patriotism and peace were ever present—on television, in newspapers and magazines, in popular music. Many historians consider 1968 to be the year that changed America, and nearly every family was touched by the events of that summer in some way—even if it was just a growing awareness of the war from images on the nightly news.”
There are so many threads in Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth—friendship, family, war, peace, patriotism, conscience, activism, loyalty—and often the threads appear to be at odds. “I hope readers will see the complexity of each of those subjects, will move beyond the simplistic thinking that so often divides us, and begin to see the world through other points of view,” O’Connor says. “Just as Reenie and Mr. Marsworth are transformed, by their connection, I hope the reader will be transformed.”