THE TELLING OF LIVES, PART III
Previously in this series, I have explored biography and autobiography as ways in The Telling of Lives. Now, I want to turn your attention to fictional autobiography.
Clara Estby, the real-life protagonist in Jane Kirkpatrick’s The Daughter’s Walk, had no understanding of her mother’s farfetched idea to walk across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize that would save the family farm near Spokane. Helga was a very determined Norwegian immigrant, a believer in women’s right to vote and even to wear the “reform/bicycle dress” that the backers of the contest were putting forth. In near financial ruin after her husband’s disabling accident, the family was in desperate straits.
In May 1896, mother and daughter set off on a journey of 3500 miles, a multitude of hardships and some kindnesses along the way. Their destination was New York City by December 13. Their route went along railroad tracks. It was to be a test of feminine stamina. It was also seen by Helga as a means to protect Clara from making a mistake in falling for the son of her rich employer. Clara’s plans for college and a life different from the farm literally fell by the wayside.
The story draws on truth from the many newspaper accounts and records of the day, on interviews with descendants and on interpretation or speculation from those facts to fill in the unknown parts of the story. Two weeks late at their December arrival and losing the challenge, mother and daughter are left to make their way back home nearly penniless. On arrival, desperation greets them. Two of the younger children have died and the family is in quarantine. Helga collapses and Kirkpatrick catches the emotions of grief eloquently and succinctly:
“Grief has many siblings. Anger, isolation, sadness, guilt, and, yes, distraction, avoidance, pretense. I met them all in the weeks that followed. So did our family.”
Feeling detached from the only family she has known, Clara leaves, assumes another name and is befriended by two older women. They offer her employment and the fulfillment of her college dreams. The women are furriers and have many contacts in New York as well as overseas. As Clara is drawn into the business, she is also drawn to the company’s salesman. Clara moves from bookkeeper to business owner/manager; she seldom turns away from a challenge, including learning to trap and going out by herself into the wintery woods.
Jane Kirkpatrick writes strongly of human relationships in the characters she depicts. The author shows us the attitudes, values and mannerisms of her characters:
“Design doesn’t interest me,” I said.
“To humor you: where would we trap?” Franklin asked. He wasn’t scowling now. He looked more curious, surprised even.
“I’d buy land. The right kind of land, where I’d trap.”
“It’s not women’s work. You’re already thin as spaghetti,” Louise said.
Franklin shook his head.
“Women’s work is defined by women doing it,” I said.
The issue of Clara’s estrangement from her family is woven throughout the story and explains or accounts for twenty years of silence. This, too, is a source of grief and it seems Clara relies on relentless work to stave off its “siblings.” Reconciliation eventually occurs.
A talented writer like Jane Kirkpatrick takes the tiniest thread of a story and weaves it into a whole with fact and fiction.
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At her website, Susan Vreeland writes on the origin of her book The Forest Lover, a biographic novel of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Vreeland poses and answers a question: “Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person’s life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life.”
Do you agree with Vreeland?
Do you have a preference in form?