Hawthorne NJ student writes four books during COVID pandemic

HAWTHORNE — The pandemic has spawned hardship, misery and suffering, but in the fertile mind of Paul Duerr, it has also produced a Civil War military hero.

His name is Brigadier General William Johnson.

As the central character 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 to read.

For a seasoned soldier, Johnson is refreshingly human. He sobs when hit with very bad personal news, and there are subtle hints that he might be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that wouldn’t become a true diagnosis for 130 years.

For Duerr, however, the man he invented is just that.

“He’s a guy I made up,” Duerr said bluntly this week, his last as a junior at Hawthorne High School.

Yes, it’s true — he’s 17 and he doesn’t even have a driver’s license.

“Learner’s Permit,” Duerr corrected.

Between his numerous club activities, his marching band practices and his rigorous classes, and when most people were obsessed with their shows on Netflix, the teenager was able to produce 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 p.m. on Saturday. The books will cost $10 each, or $35 for the set of four.

The story continues under the gallery.

He said he sold over 300 copies of the books on Amazon.com.

“As far as I can remember,” Duerr said, “it’s history and nothing else. The answers to the future lie in the past. It’s important that you know where the things before trying to change them.”

The obsession, he says, was still there. He could not pinpoint the exact moment he became fascinated with US history, explaining that it began with World War II and that he worked backwards in his research to see how battles important events of the time materialized.

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“It led me to World War I,” Duerr said. “I kept doing that for a while, until I was like, ‘OK, I guess that’s what I’m going to do now.'”

He eventually began to study the Civil War, the period he said he intended to focus on for the rest of his life.

“It’s hard to say that a war where a million people died is the best,” Duerr said, “but that’s what America is.”

All of Duerr’s self-published books are historical fiction. “High Horse” and “A Shot in the Dark” are about the Civil War, and “The Ultimate Resolution” is told through the eyes of World War I Marine Corps officers. These are not series, but there are “easter eggs” connecting each.

“1864,” which is Duerr’s longest book at 132 pages, details actual Civil War skirmishes, but Johnson and other characters are drawn from his imagination. The officer commands what is called the “Bear Brigade”, a tribute to the high school mascot.

The short story, dedicated to “every teacher” Duerr has ever had, is set in the spring and early summer.

The gore is sometimes sharp. In a scene not as violent, Duerr writes: “Artillery explosions ignited dry wood, engulfing the desert in flames. Smoke surrounded the combatants, choking them to death, while others burned alive before that they cannot achieve melee action.”

Cover of '1864', a short story by Duerr.

Matthew Corvo, who has been Duerr’s history teacher for the past two school years, recalled the exact moment he met the bright student. This was a virtual meeting, as the K-12 district was following a hybrid schedule of in-person and distance learning.

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 professor thought Duerr was teasing him or trying to butter him up. Then he got to know her.

“If you really love the subject,” Corvo said, “you understand that you really don’t know anything about it. Paul had that jump street stuff.”

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 appointed 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.

Email: [email protected]

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