HAWTHORNE — The pandemic gave rise to hardship, misery and suffering, but in the fertile mind of Paul Duerrit also produced an Army hero of the Civil War.
His name is Brigadier Gen. William Johnson.
As the central figure in Duerr’s new book, “1864”, the military leader beats the snot out of rebel forces, receives a telegram from Honest Abe and teaches a Southern boy how to read.
For a battle-hardened soldier, Johnson is refreshingly human. He sobs when he is hit with very bad personal news, and there are subtle hints he may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that would not become an actual diagnosis for another 130 years.
To Duerr, though, the man he invented is just that.
“He’s some dude I made up,” Duerr said in a straightforward tone this week, his last as a junior at Hawthorne High School.
Yes, that’s right — he is 17 years old, and he does not even have a driver’s license.
“Learner’s permit,” Duerr corrected.
In between his many club activities, marching band practices and rigorous coursework, and while most people were binging their shows on Netflix, the teen was able to churn out not just one book, but four — in less than a year and a half.
He will host a book-signing event at Shortway’s Barn, a bar and restaurant at 991 Goffle Road, from 1-3 pm on Saturday. The books will cost $10 each, or $35 for the bundle of four.
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He said he has sold more than 300 copies of the books on Amazon.com.
“For as long as I can remember,” Duerr said, “it’s been history and nothing else. The answers to the future are found in the past. It’s important for you to know where stuff came from before you try to change it.”
The obsession, he said, was always present. He could not pinpoint an exact time when he became fascinated with US history, explaining it began with World War II and that he worked backward in his research to see how important the battles of the era materialized.
“That led me to World War I,” Duerr said. “I just kept doing that for a while, until I was like, ‘OK — I guess this is what I’m going to do now.'” “
He eventually started to study the Civil War, the time period that he said he intends to concentrate on the rest of his life.
“It’s hard to say that a war where a million people died is the best,” Duerr said, “but it’s what America is.”
All of Duerr’s self-published books are historical fiction. “High Horse” and “A Shot in the Dark” are on the Civil War, and “The Ultimate Resolution” is told through the eyes of Marine Corps officers of World War I. They are not a series, but there are “Easter eggs” “linking each one.
“1864”, which is Duerr’s longest book at 132 pages, details real skirmishes of the Civil War, but Johnson and other characters are from his imagination.. The officer commands what is referred to as the “Bear Brigade,” a salute to the high school’s mascot.
The novella, dedicated to “every teacher” Duerr has ever had, takes place in the spring and early summer.
The gore is, at times, vivid. In a not-as-violent scene, Duerr writes: “Explosions from artillery ignited dry timber, engulfing the Wilderness in flames. Smoke encircled the combatants, suffocating them to death, while others burned alive before they could reach the melee action.”
Matthew Corvo, who was Duerr’s history teacher for the past two school years, recalled the precise moment that he met the bright student. It was a virtual meeting, as the K-12 district was on a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote instruction.
Duerr turned on his camera, Corvo said, and there was a print of a famous oil painting on his bedroom wall: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze.
The teacher thought that Duerr was ribbing him, or trying to butter him up. Then, he got to know him.
“If you truly love the subject,” Corvo said, “you understand that you really know nothing about it. Paul had that from jump street.”
Duerr was among four high school students this year to win a recognition award from the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies. He was nominated by Corvo.
Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.