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Book notes get River Ridge teacher on 'Oprah'

A local teacher was moved to send Oprah Winfrey her thoughts on We Were the Mulvaneys. She didn't think she'd be on TV.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- River Ridge High School teacher Laurie Peterson saw a little bit of herself in the family chronicled in the Joyce Carol Oates novel We Were the Mulvaneys.

But when she sent Oprah Winfrey her thoughts on the book, she never thought the television talk show's producers would land her a spot on the monthly "Book Club" segment of The Oprah Show.

Peterson, who teaches English and American Literature, joined Oprah, four other viewers and Oates in a discussion of the novel in late February. Each month, Winfrey selects a book and asks viewers to send in their thoughts and opinions about it. Producers sift through the responses and invite five viewers to come to Chicago to talk about the book. Peterson's taped segment aired Thursday afternoon on national television.

Peterson said she was nervous about being on television until she met Oprah and Oates, and then pretty much forgot that her face and thoughts would be beamed across America via one of television's most popular afternoon talk shows.

"Oprah just sort of showed up, and we started talking; and before you know it, the cameras were rolling," said Peterson, 43.

We Were the Mulvaneys is about a close farming family that's torn apart when one of the daughters is raped. In the story, the family's mother sends the daughter into exile because nobody in the clan knows how to handle the crime's fallout.

As a mother of five, Peterson said she could relate to the struggle of keeping communication open in a large family. But she also came to hate the way the book's mother ultimately handled the rape.

"I could relate to that whole family dynamic, and the book just filled me with so many emotions," she said. "I also felt that what happened to them could happen to anybody."

Peterson put those thoughts in an e-mail that she sent to the show's producers. A few days later a Winfrey representative called Peterson to talk a bit more about the book. A few more calls ensued, and a few weeks later she was invited to Chicago to be on the show.

Her two-day trip to Chicago, paid for by the show, was also a chance to hear a renowned author talk about writing, tidbits she plans on passing on to her students.

"I loved hearing about how she crafts her characters," Peterson said. "She said it was like building a nest: taking a piece of something from one person and another from somebody else and weaving them together."

Peterson said she admires Winfrey because she encourages her viewers to read good literature and she's always talking about the power of the written word. It's a message that Peterson wishes she could drive home to more of her students, she said.

"I'd like to start a book club here at River Ridge," said Peterson, who has taught at the school for six years. "I'd love for the kids to get as excited about reading as I do."

- Kent Fischer can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.

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