As a young volunteer re-enactor at Naper Settlement, Michael Leali was comfortable identifying as a 19th-century boy. He was carrying his backpack, which contained essential tools of that time, such as a pewter mug and a writing slate. Leali had read all of the Little House on the Prairie books. He loved 1800s history. “I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln,” Leali recalls.

But the boy who grew up in Naperville and Oswego wasn’t comfortable with his 21st century gay identity until he got to college.

Leali’s debut novel, “Amos Abernathy’s Civil War,” aims to make that journey easier for other teens entering puberty.

“I didn’t know anything about LGBTQ+ history until 1960,” says Leali, 32, who always knew he would be a writer and has an MFA in children’s and young adult writing from Vermont College of Fine. Arts. . While researching LGBTQ+ history, Leali discovered Albert DJ Cashier, who was born in 1843 in Ireland as Jennie Hodgers, and became a distinguished Civil War soldier who fought for the 95th Illinois Infantry.

“Today he would identify as a trans man,” Leali says. “I knew then that he was going to be the central historical figure in this book.”

Working as a volunteer re-enactor in Naper Settlement, Michael Leali felt comfortable as a 19th century boy, but struggled with his own identity. His new novel uses a Civil War soldier from Illinois to help young characters discover their own identity.
– Courtesy of Michael Leali


For Amos, the 12-13 year old protagonist of Leali’s book, Cashier helps the boy figure out who he is.

“Half the book is told in newspapers, in the form of letters that Amos writes to Albert,” says Leali. Amos knows the dead soldier can’t answer, but the boy feels connected to Cashier. Working as a re-enactor at a history museum, Amos feels safe telling Cashier about Ben, another boy who starts volunteering.

“When he shows up, Amos’ heart goes…” Leali said, her right hand slapping her chest to show a trembling heart. “This is her first crush on a real person.”

Written for children aged 8 to 12, the book is “very G-rated”, says Leali. But Amos uses Cashier as a way to explore his own feelings.

“Albert becomes his confidant, his inspiration, his guide, his spiritual ancestor in many ways,” says Leali. The boy regards the soldier as his strange hero and invents the term “Queero”.

“I don’t know if I made that up,” Leali laughs.

Ben’s character is home-schooled, and he and Amos both work as volunteer re-enactors. “Between the two characters, they kind of encapsulate every part of me and my own childhood experience,” Leali says.

Homeschooled in a very Christian home until high school, Leali says he felt he was expected to date girls as a teenager, and he did. Active in theater and the choir at Oswego High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society, he enjoyed singing Italian tunes and thought he might become an opera singer.

But he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in secondary English education, with a minor in music. As he struggled with the decision, he came out as gay to his family during his sophomore year in college. His parents and three younger siblings all accepted and supported him, he says.

Author Michael Leali, who grew up in Naperville and Oswego, will discuss his LGBTQ+ novel and sign copies of

Author Michael Leali, who grew up in Naperville and Oswego, will discuss his LGBTQ+ novel and sign copies of “Amos Abernathy’s Civil War” at 7 p.m. Monday at the Anderson Bookstore in downtown Naperville.
– Courtesy of Michael Leali

Many young people resent this acceptance, and Leali says he hopes his book can comfort them.

“If I can help LGBTQ+ youth feel more satiated, more accepted, and celebrated, then I will have succeeded,” the author says.

Looking for Cashier, Leila drove about an hour and a half south of Naperville to Saunemin, where the soldier lived after the war. Cashier’s one-room house is a historic site and he is buried in the small town’s Sunny Slope Cemetery. One headstone has her soldier’s name, and another has Cashier and her “dead name” as Jennie Hodgers, Leali says.

Every LGBTQ+ story is unique, but giving voice to one gives voice to all, says the author.

“I was fascinated,” Leali says of Cashier’s story. “It felt like I had found a queer ancestor, like I had found my roots in the world.”

Captured on a reconnaissance mission during the Siege of Vicksburg in 1863, the private cashier escaped by struggling with a gun away from a Confederate soldier and was pursued on foot, narrowly reaching the safety of the lines of the Union, according to his biography on the National Park Service website.

Working as Senator Ira Lish’s aide after the war, Cashier badly broke his leg when Lish accidentally ran him over with his car. The town doctor discovered Cashier’s female anatomy but kept Cashier’s secret, and the soldier was sent to a veterans rest home. When his physical and mental health deteriorated, Cashier was sent to Watertown State Hospital for the Insane in 1914, where staff discovered his secret and the newspapers carried his story.

Albert DJ Cashier lived as a man before and after serving as a private in the Illinois 95th Infantry during the Civil War.  Cashier was buried in 1915 with full military honors in Saunemin.

Albert DJ Cashier lived as a man before and after serving as a private in the Illinois 95th Infantry during the Civil War. Cashier was buried in 1915 with full military honors in Saunemin.
– Courtesy of Michael Leali

In danger of losing his military pension, Cashier won the support of comrades from the 95th Illinois, who testified that he was a brave soldier who risked his life in dangerous missions. Cashier retained his pension and was buried in 1915 in his uniform with full military honors.

It’s a story Leali never heard when she was a child.

“That question ended up guiding the whole book. Where is the history of the LGBTQ+ community?” said Leali. “Although this is all made up, the story is not.”

These stories have been around forever, but often ignored if they didn’t fit the typical storyline.

“We’re a label-obsessed society,” says Leali. “For some people, that can be limiting.”

As a teacher, he encourages students to tell their own stories or fill in the gaps in the story.

“You have the power to do that,” he says. Taking his advice to heart, Leali quit her teaching job in 2017 to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, worked as a teaching assistant for a junior high special education program for students with disabilities. behavioral and emotional issues, and then became Anderson’s children’s manager. Bookstore at La Grange. He accepted a position as a marketer at Sourcebooks, an independent business publisher in Naperville, before returning to Oswego High School to pursue his teaching career.

Her second book, a retelling of the Pinocchio story, will be published by HarperCollins next summer.

“Books are the best tool we have for building empathy,” says Leali, who wished his first novel had existed when he struggled to find himself. “Oh my God. That would have saved me a lot of time.”