Constable: Real Civil War hero inspires LGBTQ+ novel for writer from Naperville
As a young volunteer re-enactor at Naper Settlement, Michael Leali was comfortable identifying as a 19th-century boy. He carried his haversack, which contained essential tools of that era, such as a tin cup and a writing slate. Leali had read all the "Little House on the Prairie" books. He loved the history of the 1800s. "I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln," Leali remembers.
But the boy who grew up in Naperville and Oswego wasn't comfortable with his 21st-century gay identity until he got to college.
Leali's debut novel, "The Civil War of Amos Abernathy," aims to make that journey easier for other teens entering puberty.
"I didn't know anything about LGBTQ+ history before 1960," says Leali, 32, who always knew he would be a writer, and has a master of fine arts degree in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Researching LGBTQ+ history, Leali discovered Albert D.J. Cashier, who was born in 1843 in Ireland as Jennie Hodgers, and became a distinguished Civil War soldier who fought for the 95th Illinois Infantry.
"Today, he would identify as a trans man," Leali says. "I knew at that point he was going to be the central historical figure for this book."
For Amos, the 12-going-on-13-year-old protagonist of Leali's book, Cashier helps the boy understand who he is.
"Half the book is told in journals, in the form of letters that Amos writes to Albert," Leali says. Amos knows the dead soldier can't write back, but the boy feels a bond with Cashier. Working as a re-enactor at a history museum, Amos feels safe telling Cashier about Ben, another boy who starts working as a volunteer.
"When he shows up, Amos' heart goes ..." Leali says, his right hand thumping his chest to show a quivering heart. "It's his first crush on a real person."
Written for kids between the ages of 8 and 12, the book is "very G-rated," Leali says. But Amos uses Cashier as a way to explore his own feelings.
"Albert becomes his confidante, his inspiration, his guide, his spiritual ancestor in many ways," Leali says. The boy considers the soldier his queer hero, and coins the term "Queero."
"I'm not sure if I made that up," Leali says with a laugh.
The Ben character is home-schooled and he and Amos both work as volunteer re-enactors. "Between the two characters they kind of encapsulate every bit of me and my own childhood experience," Leali says.
Home-schooled in a very Christian home until high school, Leali says he felt he was expected to date girls as a teen, and he did. Active in theater and chorus at Oswego High School, where he was a National Honor Society member, he loved singing Italian arias and thought he might become an opera singer.
But he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in English secondary education, with a minor in music. While he struggled with the decision, he came out as gay to his family during his sophomore year at college. His parents and three younger siblings all accepted and supported him, he says.
Many young people don't enjoy that acceptance, and Leali says he hopes his book might give them comfort.
"If I can help young LGBTQ+ people feel fuller and more accepted and celebrated, then I will have succeeded," the author says.
In researching Cashier, Leila drove about an hour and a half south of Naperville to Saunemin, where the soldier lived after the war. Cashier's one-room home is a historic site, and he is buried in that small town's Sunny Slope Cemetery. One gravestone has his soldier name, and another has Cashier and his "dead name" as Jennie Hodgers, Leali says.
Every LGBTQ+ story is unique, but giving voice to one gives voice to all, the author says.
"I was fascinated," Leali says of learning Cashier's history. "It was like I had found a queer ancestor, like I had found some roots to my own place in the world."
Captured on a reconnaissance mission during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Private Cashier escaped by wrestling a gun away from a Confederate soldier and was chased on foot, narrowly reaching the safety of the Union lines, according to his biography on the National Park Service website.
Working as an aide to state Sen. Ira Lish after the war, Cashier badly broke his leg when Lish accidentally ran over him with her car. The town doctor discovered Cashier's female anatomy but kept Cashier's secret, and the soldier was sent to a rest home for veterans. When his physical and mental health deteriorated, Cashier was sent to the Watertown State Hospital for the Insane in 1914, where staff discovered his secret, and newspapers told his story.
In danger of losing his military pension, Cashier won the support of comrades from the 95th Illinois, who testified that he was a brave soldier who risked his life on dangerous missions. Cashier kept his pension and was buried in 1915 in his uniform with full military honors.
It's a story Leali never heard as a boy.
"That question ended up guiding the whole book. Where is the history of the LGBTQ+ community?" Leali says. "Although all of this is made up, the history is not."
Those stories always have been around, but often ignored if they didn't fit the typical storyline.
"We are a society that is obsessed with labels," Leali says. "For some people, that can be limiting."
As a teacher, he encourages students to tell their own stories, or fill in those gaps in history.
"You have the power to make it so," he says. Taking his advice to heart, Leali quit his teaching job in 2017 to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts, worked as a teaching assistant for a junior high special education program for students with behavioral and emotional disorders, and then became the children's manager for Anderson's Bookshop in La Grange. He took a job as a marketing specialist at Sourcebooks, an independent trade publisher in Naperville, before returning to Oswego High School to continue his teaching career.
His second book, a retelling of the Pinocchio story, will be published by HarperCollins next summer.
"Books are the greatest tool we have to develop empathy," says Leali, who wishes his first novel would have been around when he was struggling to find himself. "Oh, my gosh. It would have saved me a lot of time."