Wanted to note that this coming Saturday, Sept. 27, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Catherine Marshall, which is why I attended a ChristyFest in her memory this past May in eastern Tennessee. I so wanted to do a biography of her but – as related in earlier posts – I got tremendous resistance from certain family members. It was so odd, in that when the idea first hit me, I then discovered that Catherine’s grave was a mere two miles from my home in Hyattsville, which is just north of the District line. Catherine, Peter and two of their grandchildren are buried in the Ft. Lincoln cemetery down Rt. 1. Had Peter Marshall – her son – still been alive, I would have gotten somewhere because he might have approved this project. But, alas, he died a year before this idea occurred to me. Catherine herself died in 1983. Anyway, Catherine was one of the most interesting women of the 20th century and a ground breaker for female Christian writers. A lot of people under 50 have never heard Catherine’s story. When I first got this idea, I did a few days’ worth of research with the help of the University of Maryland library, which was two miles from my front door in the other direction from Catherine’s grave. Clearly this family has a legacy. Catherine’s 31-or-so books have sold 18 million copies. That’s an empire.
This spring, I drove to ChristyFest in east Tennessee, which is a celebration of Catherine’s most famous book Christy and the TV series by the same name, and I picked up a bit more information there. One person who’d done a lot of research on Catherine said that Catherine’s family has her journals and that those have never been published. The writer who has access to those is the one who should do Catherine’s biography, she said, which makes sense. As I’ve related elsewhere, a lawyer connected with the family told me that if I wrote about Catherine, I’d break some law she said protects the reputations of the dead. It was a not-so-veiled threat. This past spring – when I ran across another attorney well versed in media law – I discovered that I can write whatever I want about someone who has died. There’s no law on the books that can stop me or anyone, really.
But I digress. Catherine’s parents Lenore and Jim Whittaker served at the mission in Del Rio, Tenn., from 1909 to 1912 and the story is that they wanted to start a family but didn’t want do so in such an isolated area. So they moved to Johnson City, Tenn., which is where Catherine was born 100 years ago this month. I have always thought she was an extraordinary woman and I hope someone – if not me then someone better – gets to write her biography. Yes, I know that Catherine wrote an awful lot of books about her inner life but there’s still room for a biography, since it’s been decades since her last books were written. Also, 90 years ago this month, my father was born in New Ulm, Minnesota, and later this week we’re flying to Seattle to celebrate it. More on that later.
I am still wandering about the Alaska collections of local libraries. On Sunday, I found a history of Alaska newspapers, John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” Tom Rose’s “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” (about the freeing of 3 stranded California gray whales off the coast of Barrow in September 1988), “Extreme Tourism,” a book about tourism in northern latitudes and “The Bishop Who Ate His Boots” about Isaac O. Stringer, the pioneering turn-of-the-century Anglican bishop of Yukon. In those days, there were no roads, so people got about by floating down rivers – of which there plenty in these parts plying the waters from Whitehorse to Dawson – by dogsled, horseback or simply walking. (Thanks to the Canadian gold rush some decades before, there were trains in the region as well). The Beaufort Sea was also frequented by whaling ships. This man visited places on the Arctic Ocean (ie Herschel island on MacKenzie Bay near the Alaska state line) that even today are dicey; yet he was tromping about the area more than 100 years ago. Places such as the Porcupine and Peel rivers that only the hardiest of outdoors people try today; hamlets such as Ft. McPherson, which is way north of the Arctic Circle – that’s where he hung out for 40 years. The title comes from an incident in the fall of 1909 when the bishop and a companion were traveling from Ft. McPherson and Dawson, got lost in the wilderness for 51 days and only survived by chewing on their mukluks. When they traveled from mission post to mission post, he and his wife camped out in the wild without Gortex, iPhones or any of our 21st century conveniences.
These days, you drop by a tourism office somewhere in British Columbia or southern Yukon and pick up glossy tourist brochures telling you to drive to Inuvik via the Dempster, a gravel highway that parallels much of the same territory the Anglican missionaries traversed more than a century ago. These days, the area is being sold as a backpacking, mountain biking and ecological paradise. Judging from what I saw in the southern Yukon, Canada has plowed major funds into making these isolated provinces a tourist draw.
Of course none of this would be of interest to me had I not driven through part of this territory a month ago. I now am so grateful for having driven the AlCan, which provided the reference points I needed while reading “The Woman Who Walked to Russia,” a travel/adventure story by Cassandra Pybus, an Australian who in 1998 tried to retrace the steps of a woman who walked (or hopped freight trains) from the east coast of the United States to Dawson City in central Yukon. Her trip through British Columbia – following a path known as the Collins Overland/Yukon Telegraph Trails that sought to connect North America to Europe via Siberia – was in 1928 and the author followed her trail, driving down the most isolated back roads imaginable in western BC. I knew nothing about this area in July but by the end of August I had learned quite a lot! August, I’ve learned, is the best time to travel through these parts. The mosquitoes are pretty much gone and early autumn has set in, causing all the birches and aspens to turn a flaming yellow.