Middle schoolers can get a jump on their summer reading and learn about rural electrification at the same time thanks to a new historical fiction book.
Written by retired co-op magazine editor Curtis Condon, “Wish Upon a Crawdad" takes place in the foothills of Oregon's Coast Range in 1940, around several pivotal events in the nation's history: the end of the Depression, the leadup to World War II and the early years of rural electrification.
The narrator is 12-year-old Ruby Mae Ryan, whose family is about to get electricity for the first time thanks to the electric cooperative formed by her parents and neighbors. Headstrong Ruby has two wishes: a home with electricity and money to buy a surprise gift for her mother. Most of the book details her efforts to earn money—the most lucrative is catching crawdads—and the adventures she has along the way with friends and neighbors in the fictional town of Crossroads.
“She has to earn what seems like an impossible amount of money, especially given the hard times and her being just a kid," said Condon, who began the book several years ago and finished it during the pandemic. “A lot of things happen along the way on her quest to earn the money, including fending off a dog attack, kissing a pig, almost drowning, and searching for a legendary place called Crawdad Haven."
A history and genealogy buff, Condon's inspiration for the book came from a variety of sources—his childhood in Oregon, stories from his mother (“whose fingerprints appear throughout the book") and, of course, his own career.
“I loved to go out and interview people for stories, especially older folks who were original co-op members," said Condon, 65, who retired in 2017 after nearly three decades as a writer and editor at Ruralite magazine, a statewide publication for co-ops in the West.
“They would pull out their REA membership cards and some of the guys had done their own electrical work. They had such great stories to tell; they could go on for hours."
That rural electrification is the story's backdrop is a particular point of pride for Condon, who had dreamed about writing a children's book since he was, well, Ruby's age. During his research, Condon said he came across only one children's book, published about 50 years ago, with that theme.
The early days of electric co-ops with “people getting together and bringing electricity to their areas is such a fantastic story. And I'm baffled why you don't read it in any other books," said Condon, who suggested that rural stories just aren't on the radars of big urban publishers.
In the book, Ruby's best friend lives in town in one of the few houses with electricity, a stark contrast to Ruby's own home life.
“I hope kids will take away a greater appreciation for all the wonderful things they can do because of electricity," Condon said. “There's a section in the back of the book where I ask, 'What if you didn't have electricity for smartphones and TVs?' Welcome to Ruby's world, because that's exactly what it was like back then."