Saturday, April 04, 2009

Saturday Soliloquy-- Do We Always Have to Have the Absolute Truth?

I decided to make a visual change to my Saturday Soliloquy posts. Although I love Charles Dana Gibson's illustrations, I have to admit that a black and white Kodak of me "reading" is much more suitable than a black and white sketch of a moody 19th-century beauty with pen in hand, staring solemnly into space!

What's on my mind this week? Something that's been doing jumping jacks in my grey matter since I reviewed Only Opal. I was enchanted by Opal's diary, of her view of nature, of the insight into the interior life of a child. The diary also seemed so incredibly sad that I wanted to find out more about Opal Whiteley, so I did what anyone in 2009 with Internet access would do: I Googled her name.

I think she would be pleased that she has her own website, But what I read there broke my heart a little. Opal Whiteley recorded everything she saw in a secret diary, written with colored pencils on the backs of butcher paper, wrapping paper and the backs of envelopes. Although she took care to hide her diary, when she was fourteen, her younger sister found it and tore all the pages to pieces. Opal rescued all the pieces of paper and hid them in a hatbox in a neighbor's house. In 1920, Opal managed to have her diary published, and it instantly became a sensation. But as is usually the case, when someone becomes a sensation, a searchlight is aimed right at that person. Many people wondered how someone so young could write so beautifully, so powerfully...and they decided that it was impossible. People returned their copies and demanded refunds. Accused of literary fraud, Opal fled to England, where in 1948 she was found living in a London tenement and rummaging through the ruins of bombed-out buildings in search of books. She was taken to a public mental hospital where she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and lived there until her death in 1992.

The whole Opal controversy reminded me of a similar one involving West With the Night, which happens to be one of my favorite books. Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman, one of my very favorite in history. When she was four, her family moved to Kenya from England. Although her mother quickly returned to England, Beryl stayed on with her father, where she had a very adventurous childhood, learning, playing and hunting with the natives. She also learned about horses on her father's farm and as a young adult, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. She was friends with Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, and she took up flying, scouting game from the air for the safaris far below her.

In 1936, she became the first woman to fly west across the Atlantic solo, and the first person to fly from England to North America non-stop. She wrote of her many adventures in West With the Night, which was published in 1942. Although given strong reviews, the book didn't sell all that well and quickly went out of print. She returned to Kenya in 1952, where she was a leading trainer of race horses for many years.

It all would've ended there if someone hadn't rediscovered West With the Night and had it reprinted in 1983. (Beryl would spend the last three years of her life as a leading trainer and bestselling author.) The critics' spotlight was turned on her, and the wagging fingers and flapping tongues started up. How could someone with so little education write something so beautiful? Many claimed that her screenplay-writing third husband actually wrote it, not Beryl.

Why is it so difficult for people to believe that writers with little education can sometimes write brilliantly? My grandfather had an eighth-grade education, but he had a turn of phrase that I would rank right up at the top. Lack of education never stopped him from putting words together. Why should it have stopped Opal Whiteley or Beryl Markham?

Let's say the nay-sayers are right. Opal didn't write her diary when she was six. She wrote it when she was twenty. Does that make the diary's language and imagery any less beautiful and powerful? I don't think it does. I think in Opal's case people didn't want to believe that a schizophrenic could write that way, even though it's been proven time and again that there's a very fine line between genius and madness. Yes, Opal did take liberties with her actual family status, but the true draw of the book for me isn't her relationships with people, it is her relationship with nature.

What if the critics were right and Beryl Markham told her stories to her third husband who then wrote them all down? Does that make her memories of her incredible adventures any less valid, any less beautiful? I really don't think it does. Although I'm undecided on Opal's age when she actually wrote her diaries, I think Markham did write her own book and had help in the editing stage. That's my own opinion, of course. That and a dollar or two might get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I still rank both books very highly in my personal library regardless of controversy.

How do you feel about something like this? If after reading Opal Whiteley's diaries you discovered that she was twenty when she wrote them, not six, would you feel lied to? If West With the Night knocked your socks off and then you found out that Markham had help in writing or editing it, would you feel cheated? Would you feel as if you'd wasted your time reading these books? I'm really interested in reading your opinions about this!

Now...if I found that a non-fiction book I'd read was really fiction-disguised-as-the-truth to sell more books, I would feel cheated and might even want to throw the book at the author's head. This would be a case of plain old false advertising and lying. But in the cases of Whiteley and Markham, I believe that their stories are still their stories, their truths as they lived them, whether or not Opal Whiteley was a child prodigy or Markham had help with her writing.

What do you think? Don't be shy!


  1. In all honesty, I shy away from 'child prodigy' books. I've read Amelia Atwater-Rhodes (published at 13) and Christopher Paolini. In both cases, I put the books down wishing they had waited a few more years to develop their writing style & own ideas. So when I saw a book that trumpeted that the author was 14, I actually went the other way (not what the marketer intended, I'm sure).

    I think with the age thing? I would feel cheated. People make such a big deal out of being precocious that I think it does matter whether you were 6 or 20. Whether or not they had help... that I don't really care about.

    But the first thing that sprang to mind when I read your soliloquy is that these very same arguments are being made over Shakespeare. Most of the anti-Stratfordians believe some hick from Warwickshire couldn't possibly have written those plays and that he must have been a front for an aristocrat - and my reaction is the same as yours: why on earth COULDN'T someone relatively uneducated have a way with words? Storytellers have been around as long as we have after all!

  2. What a sad story about Opal. I had never read the book or heard of it but after reading this it makes me want to find a copy. Thats to bad no one believed that she could have actually written the story. To actually destroy someones reputation without proof is just wrong.

  3. If I enjoyed a story, or diary etc. I wouldn't care what the age of the author was or if it had been represented as younger than they actually were. Just like I wouldn't change my mind about not enjoying a story because the author was considered the best or won great prizes and accolades. Don't let anyone spoil your first enjoyment of these works I say.
    And as to having help to get something into it's final form. What if they did have help-everyone goes through editing from someone before they're published. If their thoughts touched us, it's worth reading them and the nay sayers can go read someone else.

  4. To me, saying someone with no formal education cannot write great prose or poetry is like saying someone with no formal training could never play a musical instrument proficiently or beautifully. And we all know that just ain't so.

  5. I loved West with the Night, which I read years ago. I've not read Opal, but similar rumors were started about Laura Ingels Wilder too: Supposedly she was incapable of writing so well and so her daughter, Rose, must have done the writing.

    In any case, your last paragraph does a good job summing up my own thoughts.

  6. ...there's a very fine line between genius and madness.

    You're so very right, Cathy, and I think it's entirely possible that Opal wrote the diary.

    As far as Markham goes, who doesn't have editing help?

    As far as I'm concerned, if a story is well written and it moves me (or haunts me), then I don't care who wrote it. We all love age-old fables, but do we care who wrote it? Who, in fact, was Homer?

    The only thing I can't abide are flat-out liars like James Frey. I knew he was full of it from the start, but this is not the place to discuss it.

  7. I think a little leeway is fine. Ask six people what happened on the corner yesterday and you get six different versions. None of them are "wrong".

    But I feel betrayed and cross when I discover somebody has set out to dupe me by writing a whole book as nonfiction, when in fact it is fiction.

  8. Lana--Shakespeare is an excellent example to use. I think a lot of this "controversy" boils down to something very plain and simple: jealousy. Since I see myself as a reader and not a writer, I'm just happy that things like this are available for me to read. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

    Kathy--unfortunately it's the way of the world to torment the weak. My mother had a nervous breakdown when I was a baby. Some folks in town spent their entire lives "looking at her funny". Thanks for your comment!

    Sandra--I don't think the nay-sayers would have nearly as much fun, do you? Sad commentary on the jealous. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    Corey--very, very true. Thanks for your comment!

    Beth--I'd forgotten that old claptrap about LIW. Thanks for reminding me--and thanks for your comment!

    Charlie--How did you know Frey was on my mind? I must've been thinking too loudly. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your opinion. Much appreciated!

    Susan--sounds like you agree with me, which isn't necessary (but nice). I'm enjoying everyone's comments on this!

  9. I haven't read the Opal book, but I loved West with the Night. If her husband helped her with it, then good for her for finding a talented editor -- isn't that what lots of good writers do? What about writers who take suggestions from their workshop groups, etc.? A writer can take suggestions from anyone and the final work is still hers.

    On the other hand, hiring a ghost writer doesn't count in my book, so that's where I draw the line.

    And A Million Little Pieces should come with a warning sticker -- "This book was fraudulently marketed as non-fiction, but is a novel."


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!