In between edits of my novel, I’ve crammed reading time into the spare moments of my life. Books by Lisa See and Brian Doyle and Jessica Mehta and Lidia Yuknavitch and Ellen Urbani. It’s quite fitting as we kick off Women’s History Month, that I finished a fictionalized book about Harriet Beecher Stowe. And while I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book referred to as “historical romance” as is this book by author Josi Kilpack – me who gravitates to the Atwood’s and Kingsolver’s – Beecher’s name called out to me from a shelf at West Linn Public Library. After thumbing through it, I might well have placed it back on the shelf if I hadn’t noticed the dates highlighted at each chapter heading: 1836 through 1853. I immediately connected, for after all, it was in 1839 that my own great-great-great-grandmother Chloe Clark, much to her parents’ disapproval, traveled as a single 21 year-old female around the horn to the Oregon Territory.
While I somewhat slowly read this account of Harriet Beecher’s life, taking breaks to read others, I was reminded of the book Chloe’s granddaughter, Frances Gill, wrote about her in 1935, Chloe Dusts her Mantle. And I admit that the fictionalized stories of both women, carefully supported by research of the period, may help readers better understand how these women’s lives – even if of privilege – were so very, very different in those middle years of the 1800’s than later time periods, even if some things seem to change so very slowly.
Although the two women would not have known each other, and chose different, albeit non-traditional, paths for women of that era, they shared some similarities. Harriet was born in 1811 in Connecticut and Chloe in 1818 in New Hampshire. Both came from enough advantage and social standing to receive early education. Beecher, was exposed to a more rigorous, and then, traditionally male academic education, including language studies and math, at Hartford Female Seminary. Chloe attended Wilbraham Wesleyan Academy, the same Methodist-based academy Jason Lee had attended a decade prior. Both women pushed back against society’s restrictive boundaries for women, although each married and had children.
When Harriet married a man she believed would support her intellectual curiosity, she demanded solo time to write and publish, first adopting a male name in her earliest publishing efforts. Harriet Beecher pushed against society’s expectations openly and fiercely – compelled to write, eventually, about more than simply the topics of domesticity considered relevant to women then, becoming a vocal abolitionist. Harriet Beecher went on to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, selling 300,000 copies the year it was published in 1852, with a number of other books to follow. Imagine hand-writing a book and, then in those days – no social media to spread the word – selling hundreds of thousands of copies in a single year! Harriet went on to meet President Abraham Lincoln, later having a U.S. postal stamp designed after her, and was influential for both her writing and her public stances on issues of her day.
Chloe resisted her father’s early advice to marry, instead joining the Jason Lee Missionaries as a teacher bound for the Oregon Territory, but marrying William Willson 31 days after meeting him when both were based at Nisqually Mission in today’s Puget Sound area of Washington State. Chloe wrote in her journal during her years aboard the Lausanne ship, at Nisqually and later Willamette Falls, entries protected and made available online by Willamette University. Writing that was personal, generally deeply religious, and very different than that shared by Beecher. In My Music Man I share my feelings of pride for Chloe’s bravery to take on this unknown, solo journey – pushing back against society’s expectation – as well as the conflict I feel in what she identified as her “highest-purpose,” teaching and sharing Christianity with Native Americans in the Oregon Territory. I don’t honestly know if she ever fully overcame her disappointment in the missionaries’ failed early initiative, although she did go on to be an earliest teacher and leader of education in Oregon. And Chloe, considered the first teacher of the area, did put her energy to educating young women, although limited to topics identified appropriate for woman of the time, music, literature, domestic arts – advocating conservative sentiments about the traditional, domestic roles for women and the “sweet Paradise of home.” Though Chloe too fought hard for her rights to half of the land claim given to her and William, a first recognition of property ownership in this new Oregon – a time when women could own land, but not people of color. Oh, imagine if today I could converse with this woman who came before me – certainly I might be troubled by the views shared by so many whites in early Oregon? Or might it, also, lead me to a fuller understanding of the complicated history of the times?
What a time to be honoring women. Deep breath. Release. Sigh. Thanks to those strong women who came before us. Power and strength to those in the throws of it all now. And buckets of hope showered on all of our daughters and granddaughters.