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A story about life in 1914 finds readers in the 21st century

Peter Goodman


On Amazon (and, soon, Coas) an odd book has become available. Odd because, in our hustling, bustling cyberworld, it purports to be the 1914 journal of a 32-year-old woman, a serious painter and gardener, in Oakland, California. Odd because my name’s on it. Let’s say Katherine Willard wrote it through this old curmudgeon a century later.

There are zillions of books on Amazon; but, naturally, this one amazes me.

Is this how loving mothers feel – simply amazed that such a being could have originated inside them? I read Katherine’s words and they are not mine. Yet I wrote them.

Some scenes in the novel borrow heavily from actual events of the time, but many of Katherine’s thoughts were created by a wind that swept up and fused together memories, thoughts, overheard conversations, scraps of research, and dreams. That might sound mystical, but I can’t describe it more precisely. I don’t understand it well enough. Like some medium, I sat in a chair, waiting, and Katherine spoke through me.

Of course, it’s not that easy. I also spent long hours in the Library of Congress, and read each issue of the Oakland Enquirer from 1914. Writing dialogue set in 2020, we know many of the likely subjects, the appropriate words and slang, and what usually goes with what. (Loving the 2nd Amendment may not mean you like the 9th. A 23rd Century writer might guess 21st Century citizens praising “the sanctity of life” would oppose capital punishment.) Time has buried much of 1914. And I felt a loony commitment to accuracy.

I’m fond of Katherine. I felt that her voice should be heard, or that she wanted to be heard, by folks living more than a century later. I have no grandiose expectations. The book does not follow the conventional plot arc. The most dramatic events lie undreamed-of until early autumn. Many readers will have no interest. Some will quickly become bored. Others will linger to listen to Katherine’s voice and enjoy the window she provides into a long-gone time. A few will love the book.

It’s not for everyone. What I hope I have done is let a very real person, embedded in a time, a gender, and an art that are not mine, gradually reveal herself to us – and to herself. (A warning: people in the novel use words none of us today would. Their attitudes are what they were.)

I began this story decades ago. I wrote a first draft, and rather liked the writing. I liked Katherine. I felt that the quirky way I’d let her in allowed an especially real and vivid portrait to emerge. But, I put her aside. I didn’t think her story would sell; and I was certain agents and publishers would say, No, thank you!” (Much later, a friend’s agent wrote of the book in glowing terms, but added that she couldn’t see how to sell it in today’s market.)

When my spouse came into my life, she read it and liked it. I picked it up again. Then I joined a productive writing group, and she urged me to show the others Katherine’s journal. Their enthusiasm helped motivate me to press on.

So here, long delayed, is Katherine’s story. Like most parents, I’m keenly aware of how I might have done better. But I’m kind of in awe of Katherine, who, for better or worse, can now speak for herself.