When Your Mom Gives Up on You as a Writer …

Jugum Press is proud to present A Boy from Wannaska and A Girl from Sellwood as part of the “Voices of History”  series, for which Lisa Tilton produced yet another great series of covers. … because Marjorie Wright Mortensen gave up on me and decided to write these stories herself. A Boy from Wannaska For years—say 1968 to 1998, my mother begged me to write down the stories my father and uncles told. In our family, every gathering degenerated into story telling about my father’s cousins, aunts, and uncles and the Norwegian bachelor farmers he grew up with in northern Minnesota. Heck, my dad was a Norwegian bachelor farmer until weather/Depression drove him into a foundry job in Portland. We begged for these stories to be retold. When my father met up with his brothers for hours-long talk-fests, they retold these stories and then remembered new ones, laughing till gasping for breath, and then hitting a punch line”

“…when that wasn’t enough, they shaved their eyebrows. When their mothers saw…”

As a writer, I never took the action she asked. When we lost my father, I thought it was too late. However, my mother did what a “real” writer would: she began writing from memory. After the first ten pages, she begged me to get her a computer (and then called up every two weeks, thinking she’d again lost her file). My mother became Marjorie Wright Mortensen, the author. Marjorie worked regular, disciplined hours over several months. She journeyed out into the world to interview original sources. She consulted existing texts—any found there really weren’t any. She went back to her sources to ID the people in her non-digital archives. Marjorie produced the first edition of her book at her local quick-print shop:  one hundred copies shared among relatives, a copy here and there to an historical archive. I copyedited the manuscript for her and laid it out for printing. Marjorie found extreme satisfaction with the effort and the product. She mentioned that she might try the same effort with her own childhood memories. But, after seeing her first four pages and hearing nothing more of this project, I asked about it at one Christmas gathering. “It just didn’t seem that interesting to other people,” she said. “Not like Ray’s stories” (my father’s tales of Minnesota farm life). We lost Marjorie ten years ago. Since then, her granddaughter Emily Pearson republished the “Wannaska” text as HTML with audio recordings for a class project. I maintained a mental place-marker: some day I’d republish it properly. The text had actual historiographical merit, and the writing itself is evocative. This year was the year: with Emily’s assistance, we digitized the photos; I re-edited the text; Emily proofread, researched and approved notes. We added the genealogy details from hand-written family records, and I added maps and footnotes. As a family record, it’s invaluable, but you can’t find another equivalent manuscript that carefully describes life in northern Minnesota for first- and second-generation Scandinavian immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century. While digitizing the photo collection, we discovered my mother’s childhood memoir. Marjorie had written much more than what she originally showed me. I believe that she tucked the project aside for the chief reason I’ve seen others cease work on memory-based projects: you often find that you’ve evoked more memories than are pleasant. She had “documented” the events, but I believe she couldn’t find how to inject the humor and liveliness of “Wannaska” into her own more grim life experiences. The editorial experience in cleaning up and validating this memoir, now titled A Girl from Sellwood, brought forth more emotion than I’ve ever experienced with a nonfiction project. But that emotion is personal and comes from reading between the lines. If you aren’t family, you’ll likely find the “story” slight. The greatest contribution to the rest of the world that this book contains: the significant genealogy that Marjorie gathered and preserved (and which took me many hours to validate). So, Jugum Press, is especially proud to preserve these “voices from history.” Much like the wagon-train stories from the nineteenth century, A Boy from Wannaska and A Girl from Sellwood describe the details of day-to-day life as lived by ordinary people in their own unique and extraordinary circumstances. A Girl from Sellwood

About anniepearsonOK

Author of the Restoration Rules and Rain City series; managing editor of Jugum Press.

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