Gandy Dancing Through History: Volkmer’s Book Is a Portrait of His Hometown
Professor of English Jon Volkmer’s new book, Brave in Season, is a fictionalized version of a rumored baseball game in his hometown of Julian, Neb. It is a story that weaves railroads, race relations, and America’s pastime.
As the story goes, somewhere around 1950, a baseball game was played in tiny Julian, Neb., a village that now claims about 50 residents, but more than a half-century ago boasted four times that total.
It’s Jon Volkmer’s hometown.
For the Ursinus College professor of English and director of creative writing, the baseball game was part of Julian legend. It involved about 15 Black railroad workers known as gandy dancers, a slang term coined to describe the movements of the workers as they laid tracks by hand.
“This was a little-known town and there was a lot of potential for racial division and conflict, but that did not happen.” Volkmer said. “What did happen was a baseball game…and a picnic afterwards.”
Volkmer set out to document the event by interviewing people from Julian who witnessed it, but because many residents of that time are no longer living—and since there is a dispute among those who are living over whether it really happened—Volkmer penned a fictionalized version in a book called Brave in Season.
“It’s interesting because the story was always in my consciousness. It was part of family lore,” Volkmer said. “My oldest brother, who is 20 years older than me, remembered as a small child that there was this game, there was a picnic, and there were good feelings all around. That plunged me into research for the book.”
Volkmer began researching and writing Brave in Season in 2006, and he conducted more than 70 interviews. Some people didn’t remember the game. Others told Volkmer the game definitely happened, and there was a good-natured relationship between the workers and residents.
“I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between,” Volkmer said.
So, Volkmer took some creative license and wrote his own story—one about 17-year-old Carlin Littman (a character inspired by Volkmer’s sister) who befriends rail worker Sam Washington. The result is “a story that lies somewhere between myth and memory,” according to the book’s plot summary, and touches on themes of race relations within a tight-knit community.
“One of my readers called it a love letter to Julian,” said Volkmer, whose father owned and operated a grain elevator in town. “A lot of the incidents and anecdotes in the novel grew out of one short line from an interview. A person might have told me about a time he gave a gandy dancer a car ride into town, and that became a whole storyline.”
The fiction is accompanied by Volkmer’s “field notes”—the real-life accounts of his interview subjects, which included Clarence “Ace” Hill, a famous Black softball player who shared news clippings and stories with Volkmer. Hill is the only character in the book who is referred to by his real name.
“Hopefully, I’ve created a tie to the people who generously provided me with their recollections,” he said. “It’s a book I’ve always wanted to write. Because many of the people who could tell me about the baseball game have died—including both of my parents—it moved more in the direction of fable than I originally wanted, but I’m happy with that.”