St. Anthony author brings tornado history to life
On May 6, 1965, six of the most violent tornadoes in Minnesota history swept across the Twin Cities area. Throughout the course of “The Longest Night,” as the event came to be called, the tornado outbreak killed thirteen people, injured nearly 700 and caused millions of dollars in damages across the seven-county metro area.
First-time author Susan Scott of St. Anthony Village brings this memorable event to life in the children’s book “Pea Soup and Tomatoes.” The book follows the fictional Emery family as they hunker down in the shelter of their basement during the terrifying twisters.
Combining her lifelong fascination with storms along with her own memories and methodical research, Scott presents a family-friendly story about the power of storms and the importance of severe weather awareness.
Her book could come at no better time: this week is “Severe Weather Awareness Week” in Minnesota. From April 21-25, counties across the state will be taking action to encourage severe weather preparedness, including a statewide tornado drill on April 24.
Memories of “The Longest Night”
Scott, a native of St. Paul, was just shy of 3 years old when the May 1965 tornadoes hit. She remembers a handful of details from that night, like the sound of the civil defense sirens that warned residents of the severe weather and the pink radio on which her family listened to WCCO reports.
She also remembers the words of her parents, which serve as inspiration for the title of her book. Glancing outside the kitchen window, Scott’s mother supposed that the sky was the same shade as “pea soup.” Her father added that it looked like a tornado was coming, although to Scott’s young ears, it sounded like he said “tomato.”
When the storm hit shortly after dinner time, Scott and her mother, father and three older siblings sought shelter in the basement. When they emerged after the “all-clear,” they were grateful to see that their house had suffered no serious damage, although the kids were disappointed that they weren’t allowed to play out in the front yard due to all the downed power lines in the neighborhood.
Other neighborhoods weren’t as fortunate. The city of Fridley, which suffered the most damage during the night, was hit by the two most brutal tornadoes of the storm. The two F4 tornadoes damaged over 1,000 homes and destroyed more than 400.
Inspiration from museum exhibit
Scott’s desire to write a book about the storm “came in full force a few years ago,” she says.
During a visit to the Minnesota History Center, Scott was struck by how much she related to the “Weather Permitting” exhibit.
The exhibit focuses on Minnesota families’ survival during blizzards, heat waves, floods and other natural disasters. But what really stirred Scott was the “Get to the basement!” exhibit, which Scott refers to as the “tornado room.” Modeled after a 1960s-style home basement, the tornado room recreates the sights, sounds and sensations that so many families experienced during the 1965 tornadoes.
“You sort of get the feeling of if you were in the basement and the tornado went overhead,” says Mary Lofgren, who works at the Minnesota History Center. “It’s a pretty riveting exhibit.”
For Scott, the exhibit really hit home. One detail in particular latched on to her imagination: a pink radio, similar to the one she and her family listened to on the night of the storm.
“It brought my story to life,” she says.
Knowing she had to tell her story, Scott dove headfirst into research for her book. She spoke with people who lived through the event, listened to old WCCO recordings and investigated the archives of both the Fridley Historical Society and the Minnesota Historical Society.
“She does her homework,” says Scott’s sister Mary Pokorny. Pokorny, a library media specialist for White Bear Lake Area Schools, was a strong sounding board for Scott during the writing of her book. “Researching is her passion,” Pokorny added. “Many conversations start with ‘Did you know?’”
Scott eagerly shares her knowledge in “Pea Soup and Tomatoes,” which she describes as an “educational, easy-to-read peak into the power of Mother Nature.” The story of the Emery family is complete with historical information about “The Longest Night,” facts about tornadoes and even severe weather safety tips.
Lofgren hopes the book will supplement students’ visits to the Minnesota History Center’s tornado room. She thinks it will appeal to visitors who are interested by the “Weather Permitting” exhibitówhich is why she decided to stock the book in the Minnesota History Center gift shop.
“Sometimes you just see a book and it’s kind of a no-brainer, and that one was that for me,” she says. “It’s nice to see a book that ties so directly to one of our exhibits.”
Pokorny also sees a strong educational appeal in the book. She plans to use it as a starting point as part of her “How to Be Safe in a Storm” unit for elementary school students. She thinks students will be able to relate to it because of their own experiences with severe weather.
“Many of my students remember the Hugo tornado of a few years ago, so reading ‘Pea Soup and Tomatoes’ will generate memories and provide a scaffold for knowing what to do in stormy weather and keeping safe,” she says.
More stories to tell
Scott’s hope for “Pea Soup and Tomatoes”is that it inspires other people to share their stories.
Storytelling was always important to her growing upóher father would invent stories for her and her siblings and her mom would read books to themóbut she thinks families have moved away from that tradition in the past few decades.
“Writing this book made me realize how different families are today than they were then,” she said. But stories, like storms, bring people together, Scott says. She hopes her book encourages people to share their stories.
“We need to have storytelling in our lives again,” she says. “I wanted to preserve (my) story and retell it, and maybe other people can add to it too.”
“Scott is a natural storyteller and a dynamite writer,” Pokorny says. Though the book is geared toward children, Pokorny and Scott believe it will appeal to Minnesotans aged “4-104.”
“(The book) is not frightening for the very young, and it has enough story for older readers,” Pokorny explains.
“It’s a light read you can share (and) read aloud with your kids,” Scott adds.
Though happy to celebrate the success of her first book, Scott hasn’t stopped working on other projects. The “natural storyteller” has many more stories to tell.
“I’ve got a few little irons in the fire,” she says.
“Pea Soup and Tomatoes” is available for purchase at the Minnesota History Center gift shop, as well as Common Good Books, Red Balloon Bookshop and the General Store of Minnetonka. Some copies of the book also come with a flashlight keychainóan accessory that prepares readers for bad weather or a night of reading in the dark.
Kaylin Creason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 651-748-7825.
“Tornado Terror in Minnesota” program
April 21-25 is “Severe Weather Awareness Week” in Minnesota. To bring awareness to tornado season, the Ramsey County Library in New Brighton will present “Tornado Terror in Minnesota” on Thursday, April 24, at 2 p.m. The program will feature author Allen Taylor as he discusses what he remembers about the May 6, 1965, tornado outbreak, one of the worst weather events in Minnesota history. “Tornado Terror in Minnesota” is presented by the New Brighton Area Historical Society.