A book-signing tonight in Cedar Falls will feature the first book by Jeffrey Copeland that hasn’t been assigned to its readers. The University of Northern Iowa English professor has written 23 textbooks, but now has penned a nonfiction tale about a soldier in World War Two, based on material the soldier wrote himself.
At an outdoor flea market in Belleville, Illinois, he found an old suitcase with a hundred and fifty letters from the soldier to a woman back in St. Louis, and about thirty from her back to him. “Something in the voice of the letters touched me so deeply, that I bought ’em all, I went home and started studying who these people were, and found out that it was an incredible story.”
He served in what was called a “colored battalion” at the time, totally segregated from the others, and the professor says their contributions were “incredible, even though they were hidden and locked away in archives since World War Two.” Inman, who’s headed the English Department at UNI for about ten years, found the writer of those letters to be a man with another side, too.
It turned out that he taught at Sumner High School in St-Louis, Missouri, and so did his wife. It was the first high school built for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River, and some of their students were Tina Turner, Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, and Dick Gregory, who wrote the introduction for Copeland’s book. Copeland says Inman Perkins, the main character in the book and the writer of the letters that inspired it, had a Masters degree from the University of Iowa. His eloquent letters provided Copeland with rich material, and he wrote the book in a technique he describes as “creative nonfiction.”
“All the major events of the story are true,” he says, “but to flesh it out and give it some life, and do the voices of the characters and what they were really like, it reads like a novel.” The book’s titled “Unman’s War — A Story of Life in a Colored Battalion in World War Two.” It’s available at all major bookstores, and tonight’s (Thursday) book signing at University Book and Supply in Cedar Falls kicks off a book tour that’ll take him to several cities to talk about his project.