Book takes look at ‘Giant Steps’

Story, set in early 20th century, about women’s rights, struggles

At 86, Indiana author Mary Immel has seen her share of society’s changes.

She remembers in the late 1940s, attending a high school journalism banquet as her school newspaper’s editor-in-chief, when all girls wore gloves and hats to nice restaurants.

In her master’s degree classes at Purdue University in the late 1960s, she recalls getting jeered by their male counterparts — even though the women got better grades.

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Immel, now a resident of the Lafayette area, has continued her lifelong passion for both writing and standing up for the rights of women through her most recent project. She has written a young adult novel centered around women’s suffrage, “Giant Steps: Suffragettes and Soldiers,” published by the Indiana Historical Society Press.

The story follows a girl named Bernie Epperson who is struggling with the double standards society has placed on her compared with her brothers. She becomes a suffragette, but the complications of World War I — which her brothers enter as soldiers — make her contemplate the best way to serve her country.

The World War I period of the early 20th century is one that isn’t addressed in schools often enough, so Immel hopes that her book might help fill in the gaps left in history class for her readers.

“I think perhaps it hasn’t really been covered in the past,” she said. “Schools tend to skip over the period from the Civil War to World War II.”

And the timing seemed just right — 2017 coincides with Indiana women being able to have suffrage rights for the first time in state elections, she said.

“It felt like a giant step,” she said.

“In researching the book, I was proud to learn that Indiana women got the vote in 1917. There were several Indiana residents prominent in the suffrage movement and there are biographies of them available. Helen Gougar, of Lafayette, was a very outspoken woman,” she said.

The inspiration for the book started as an idea she had to write a children’s picture book, but the concepts seemed too big for that age group and format. During a trip to New York several years ago, she and her husband, Dan, had stopped at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and Home, and the idea to write about suffragists gelled.

“The story just took over from there, as they sometimes do,” she said.

She didn’t intentionally decide to set the story in Lafayette, but Immel is very familiar with the history of the area.

She worked for the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, where she gave school children tours of Fort Ouiatenon and Battleground. A house she often drove by in Lafayette seemed like the perfect place for the Eppersons to live.

“Well, we had some women suffrage leaders (in Indiana) that are important and they are covered slightly in the book, but it’s not a textbook,” she explained. “I wanted to do it as a historical fiction so that I could deal with a lot of just common, ordinary people who didn’t make the history books — all of the (socioeconomic) classes, the old and young, as well as men who were active in the movement.”

Johnson County ties

Immel and her husband, Dan, who passed away in 2008, first came to Indiana from Kansas so that her husband could study at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. The couple settled in the Trafalgar area, where Dan was pastor at First Christian Church. The two fell in love with rural south central Indiana, and Immel taught school at Union Elementary School in addition to substitute teaching at other Johnson County schools.

“The motion picture, ‘Hoosiers’ makes me very nostalgic because it was about that time that we lived in Indiana and both my husband and I had substituted at the old Nineveh school, which was used in many scenes,” she said.

The couple originally were from California — Mary grew up in the San Diego area, and had ventured into the Midwest for Dan’s career in ministry. They’d always intended to go back to the West Coast, but decided they liked Indiana too much to leave.

“We loved that area so much that we stayed on a couple years after my husband finished seminary,” she said. “That time was so special to our family that whenever our sons think a place is wonderful, they say, ‘It reminds us of Trafalgar.’”

Only after Immel and her husband moved to Indiana did they discover they had roots here: Both her and her husband’s families had ancestors living in Indiana before it became a state. Their ancestors lived in New Castle and Indianapolis, and a more distant relative of Mary’s is buried in Johnson County, according to records she discovered.

Throughout her time in her adopted state, she has established a career as a writer and storyteller. She’s written several books, including “Two-Way Street,” published in 1965, a Scholastic Books’ Teenage Book Club selection. The Indiana Historical Society Press book, “Captured! A Boy Trapped in the Civil War,” which has been read by youth and school groups across the country. She’s also had articles printed in American Heritage, Guidepost and The Hoosier Geneaologist: Connections magazines.

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Anna Herkamp is an editorial assistant at the Daily Journal. She can be reached at aherkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2712.