By Pat Browning
Growing up, I thought everything had been written. Who could top the King James Version of the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Charles Dickens?
In grade school, a teacher stood at her desk and read Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” to us. I sighed and cried over it, but I thought of it as a fairy tale, not a story about real people. It would be years before I met Cajuns who lived on a Louisiana bayou, the poem made flesh, so to speak.
In junior high school the boys lined up for Zane Grey’s westerns even though the teachers didn’t accept book reports on such novels. I would be middle-aged before I read a Zane Grey book and realized what a good writer he really was.
In high school English class we read Beowulf, the Old English epic poem by an anonymous poet, and Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Chaucer’s language fascinated me. I still remember “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghts of march hath perced to the roote.” Translation: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root.” Not nearly as musical as the original, and loooooong before my time.
In college I was put into an advanced freshman English class where we each got to choose one book to study for an entire semester. I chose John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, probably because the novel and movie were only whispered about in Oklahoma. I fell in love with Steinbeck’s writing and eventually read everything he wrote, but at the time GRAPES OF WRATH had nothing to do with me. I didn’t know any of those people.
The day would come when I moved to the part of California where Steinbeck lived while getting material for his novel. I would end up working on the local newspaper with a woman whose family had come from Oklahoma just like the Joads, and lived in an Okie camp, just like the Joads. She was a good writer and a good friend whose mantra – “The Lord will provide” – comes to mind almost daily.
Tme and fate led me to Dorothy Baker, who was beyond famous when I met her in late l962. Baker had literally been there and done that in the literary world. In Paris she had met and married Howard Baker, a poet, critic and novelist who became a citrus rancher in the rural Fresno area.
The Bakers taught and wrote, together and separately, but it was Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, that really made a splash. Loosely based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, it became one of 1950’s hit movies. She was back on the citrus ranch when she wrote her fourth novel, CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING, the story of a young woman who tries to sabotage her twin sister’s wedding.
Baker was a careful writer. CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING appeared more than 20 years after YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN. Reviews were mixed, ranging from “a perfect novel” (London Observer) to “a crushing disappointment” (Time magazine.) To me it was a revelation. Cassandra, the book’s narrator, drove home from Berkeley on the same roads, past the same fields, that I now drove to reach Baker’s house. Suddenly here was a piece of work from a famous writer that mirrored the here and now of my own life.
As a new stringer for The Fresno Bee I showed up at Baker’s door expecting to be awestruck, even intimidated. Instead, I found her company to be as comfortable as an old shoe -- no airs, no archness, no visible trace of vanity. She talked about famous people she had met, good books she had read, her writing technique, how she sometimes sat for hours before typing a single line.
My clipping of that interview is brown with age but still readable. The best quote from Dorothy Baker: “A writer should have a thorough understanding of what the Greeks call the ‘recognition scene,’ that moment when a character has a revelation, an insight that will change the course of his life and the course of the story. It’s a basic technique.”
Toward the end of our chat I confessed that I had written a brief memoir, hoping to turn it into a novel, but I was stuck. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Don’t worry. If you have something to say, you’ll say it.”
Life takes its own sweet time. It would be almost 40 years before I finally had something to say and time to say it. FULL CIRCLE, my first mystery, was set in a fictional version of a small Central San Joaquin Valley town. A fictional version of the here and now of my life, as many first novels are, I self-published it in 2001.
In 2008, Krill Press, a small start-up press, picked it up and republished it, after some revisions and a new cover, as ABSINTHE OF MALICE. Best of all, the publisher put it on Amazon’s Kindle, where it has sold almost 400 copies in this month of October.
It was nine years after the book’s first publication before the brief memoir that started it all finally made it into print. “White Petunias,” about growing up in Oklahoma, had been revised periodically because I liked it too much to throw it out.
In 2007 “White Petunias” won second place in its category in the Frontiers in Writing contest sponsored by Panhandle Professional Writers, Amarillo, Texas. In 2009, after more revisions and polishing I submitted it to the RED DIRT BOOK FESTIVAL ANTHOLOGY: OKLAHOMA CHARACTER. In 2010 the anthology finally appeared in print. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
And in the words of almost everyone who ever entertained a deep thought, “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.”
Photo of Dorothy Baker by Patricia Cokely (Browning), 1962