Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Laundress by the Lake, 1892

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Laundress by the Lake, 1892

Article excerpt

The Hardest Thing
Butter Creek Schoolhouse, 1873

From a sod floor beaten to hardpack
By use, we watched Miss Teacher sweep
Loose grit, putting down
Gunny bag carpet except for a square
Near the stove for us to scratch
Our letters and numbers into the ground.
During the first year, she
Boarded at our house
As part of her pay. At night
We tried not to stare as Miss
Teacher climbed into bed
With all her clothes on,
Changing under the covers.
We rode, three to a horse,
The four miles to school.

Neither blackboard nor books, only
Tattered Bible and ancient almanac
To practice geography and spelling.
Our only light, the open door until
Hollowed potatoes made perfect
Candlesticks. Light or dark,
We mapped St. Paul's missionary journeys
Compared with equal distances down
The road to home: If Columbia Gorge
Was our Jordan, then
Mount Hood our Sinai and
--without question--Umatilla Landing
(with Spanish dance halls and
Twelve liquor emporiums)
The Wilderness of Sin. But
When Miss Teacher made us hold
The scratching stick like a pen,
Pretending to drip the ink,
Now blot, blow dry

--that was the hardest thing.

Jana Harris, The Dust of Everyday Life, an Epic Poem of the Pacific Northwest

The Laundress by the Lake, 1892: Using Historical Documents in Creating Fictional and Poetic Narratives with an Eye toward Re-evaluating the Evidence

For years I have been writing fiction and poetry about the day-to-day lives of Northwest frontier women and children who lived more than a hundred years ago. In doing this, I have felt myself to be conducting a writerly investigation of people and events which otherwise would have been forgotten. The fiction, not surprisingly, came out in the novel form; the poetry in the form of linked dramatic monologues--a sort of confluence of historical narrative and poetic imagery. My work is informed by travel and archival materials including photographs, diaries, journals, household and personal artifacts, newspapers, reminiscences, interviews, obituaries, court reports, maps, legal files and documents, school records, scrapbooks, and whatever else might fuel the imagination. In one mental pile I collect the elements of narrative--the fuel of fiction; in the other I collect striking images--the life's blood of poetry. Until I find a suitable vehicle, odd images, narrative fragments, and bits of language get stuck in my head for years.

My first poetry book in this vein centered on the women who immigrated to the Okanogan Valley in north-central Washington State between the years of 1886-1893, and was titled Oh How Can I Keep on Singing? Voices of Pioneer Women. While doing research for this collection--as well as for a novel concerning a nineteenth-century woman prospector--I stumbled upon the infamous silver mining town of Ruby, which was, for a brief time, government seat of the newly organized Okanogan County, Washington Territory. Memoirist Guy Waring dubbed Ruby Camp "the Babylon of the West." Indeed, the more I read about Ruby, the more its legal code (or lack of it) intrigued me. The goings-on in this silver mining town leapt out from the archives and seemed to strongly resemble many allegedly democratic governments run like personal fiefdoms.

These are some of the known statistics concerning Ruby, Washington Territory: In 1886, after the Columbia Indian Reservation, commonly known as the Moses Reservation, was returned to the public domain (meaning it was taken away from the Native Peoples, the Sinlahekin, Moses, and the Okanogans among them), the isolated high desert of the Okanogan Valley west of the Okanogan River, east of the Cascade Mountain Range, and south of the Canadian border was opened up to mineral claim and white settlement. In a nutshell, the indigenous people who had lived, gathered, and hunted in the area, some for time immemorial, were enticed to move elsewhere. As one might imagine, this caused them considerable consternation. …

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