Meet the Biographer: Mary Morton Cowan

Mary Morton Cowan won the 2010 National Outdoor Book of the Year award for Captain Mac, her biography of arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan. She is also the author of Ice Country, a historical novel featuring MacMillan, and Timberr…. A History of Logging in New England, which received the Maine Library Association’s Lupine Honor Award.  Ms. Cowan lives in Maine.

Ms. Cowan spoke with Kidsbiographer last week about the joys of researching MacMillan’s adventures and the explorer’s impact on her life and many others.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that your grandfather and Captain Mac were friends, that you saw his schooner sail in 1954, and that you attended some of his lectures and films. Did you ever meet Captain Mac?

MMC: Whenever Mac showed his films anywhere near Portland,Maine, our family was there. I don’t recall a formal introduction because I was only 6 or 7 years old the first time I met him. But three things I remember distinctly – his booming voice, his hearty laugh, and his spectacular movies. Physically he was short, but his commanding voice revealed a man of determination and grit.

Kidsbiographer: What did he and the Arctic  represent to you during your childhood?

MMC: It was exciting for me to know a REAL explorer who had great adventures! We did not have TV when I was young, and seeing movies of a wild and totally strange world was memorable. His movies were riveting – huge icebergs, strange Arctic animals, fascinating people. Everything about the Arctic was  captivating – still is, for that matter! A few years ago, when Mac’s old movies were digitized, I was surprised by how well I remembered them.

Kidsbiographer: Captain Mac appears as a character in your novel Ice Country. How did it feel to use a historical figure as a character and then to write a biography of that person?

MMC: Actually, I wrote the biography first – at least, an early version of it. But it didn’t feel quite right.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the research for the biography was interviewing about a dozen men who had sailed with Mac as students. So fascinating, in fact, that I dropped the biography and wrote Ice Country. Every single man told me that he had the best summer of his life when he sailed with Captain Mac, so I decided to create an expedition starring a fictional teenager who has the best summer of his life. I added conflicts, but the plot generally followed the itinerary of a typical MacMillan Arctic expedition.

It felt a bit strange writing a sailing adventure with a crew of fictional characters, while keeping Captain Mac real. But after those great interviews, Captain Mac became very real to me. The men related how Mac acted, expression he used, his mannerisms, and demeanor. Without their interviews, I never could have done it.

But I couldn’t get the biography out of my head. Kids today know about Arctic explorers like Robert Peary and Matthew Henson, but they don’t know about Captain Mac. I decided I must tell them. Fortunately, I found an editor who liked the idea. She has high standards, so I had a lot of revising to do – and I am ever so thankful for her guidance. She wanted it to read like a novel, and people tell me that it does.

Kidsbiographer: Mac’s wife Miriam and the men who spent summers sailing with him as teenagers readily shared their memories of Mac with you. What about their recollections did you find especially intriguing or surprising?

MMC: The first thing that surprised me was that every man I contacted stopped whatever he was doing immediately to chat with me about Mac. One physician told me to come right down to his office and we’d talk. Others had me come to their homes or offices and were eager to share their experiences. They pulled out photos. One man showed me several hundred feet of movies he had taken. Clearly, their lives were changed because of MacMillan. Mac introduced them to various branches of science, he taught them a love of sailing, and, most of all, he gave them confidence to explore. Mac expected a lot of his “boys,” and they found themselves able to do things they never dreamed of. Every single one felt his life had been greatly enriched by sailing with Captain Mac.

Miriam had adored Mac since she was a little girl, and that still showed when I chatted with her in her 80s. She was so thrilled I was writing about him, she spent hours sharing anecdotes with me, all of which helped me understand Captain Mac.

Kidsbiographer: Captain Mac is listed as being suitable for ages ten through adult. What was the most challenging aspect of constructing a biography that appeals to such a wide age group?

MMC: I never considered writing for such a wide age group. I focused on middle-grade students because I wanted to introduce them to this explorer and share his exciting life with them. But I didn’t write “down” to them, and that may be why adults find it enjoyable to read. Also, I think the Artic still fascinates most of us and that Mac led such a fascinating life that folks of all ages like to read about it.

Kidsbiographer: What are some of the most gratifying responses you’ve received from kids – and parents and teachers for that matter – about Captain Mac?

MMC: Boys and girls continually tell me they like reading about all the dangers Mac got into – on the ice, with polar bears, walrus, musk oxen, nearly starving to death. And the silly parts, like baking a disastrous cranberry pie and trying to tame a polar bear. It gets kids thinking. One 8th grader said, “ I can’t imagine how he could want something so much.”

Several of Mac’s relatives have thanked me for writing about him because there is little else out there about him. One of Mac’s “boys” said, “I like the way you captured his spirit.”

Teachers are impressed with the accuracy and amount of research that I put into the book, and they like the way it fits into several units: Social Studies, Science, etc. A number of parents have enjoyed reading the book as a family with their younger children liking the many pictures.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?

MMC: I tend to multi-task, so at the moment, I’m working on another historical novel, plus a couple of nonfiction books.

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