Monday, September 6, 2010

little boys playing in a lake & the idea for "Jenny of the Tetons"

Tetons and Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, USA Artists Photographic Poster Print by G Richardson, 24x32
Jenny Lake, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park was supposed to be a three-hour drive from our home in Pocatello, Idaho, but with two toddlers in the backseat it took twice that long ... diaper-changes, someone was thirsty, a moose was spotted. Finally, before too many squabbles, we reached a beautiful picnic beach at Jenny Lake [PHOTO, left]. I marveled that such a pristine spot was named after a woman and asked at the visitor's center about her identity.

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)
A ranger explained Jenny had been a Shoshone Indian married to an English fur trapper named Beaver Dick Leigh during the 1870s. Not only is the neighboring Leigh Lake named after him, he kept a journal of their life together with their children. My imagination went wild. What was it like hiking with five kids in the wilderness while being pregnant? Living in a tipi during blizzards? While our boys threw stones in the lake and splashed each other, I wondered if Jenny was another mother lost to history or was there a story to be told?

I'd been a newspaper reporter and book reviewer, but had never written a novel. Didn't know how or where to start! In the gift shop I bought maps, nature guides, and historical accounts about the tribes, then hauled everything to the car with the usual plunder of candy and T-shirts. On the long drive back to Pocatello, ideas percolated. By the time the boys were down for "naps" [ha! that's a joke] I was on the phone with the archivist at the University of Wyoming. I asked how I might read Beaver Dick's diaries and said I was writing a book called Jenny of the Tetons, a title that just that instant popped into my head.

A few days later, the mailman delivered a hefty package. Inside were xeroxes of Dick's letters and journals with a note from the archivist: "$10.40 please." Wow! I spread out the maps on the kitchen table and began tracing every canyon, creek and river mentioned in the diaries. Soon I had a picture of Jenny's life with her mountain man and began to write, opening each chapter with his words. His spelling was atrocious which I kept intact to show kids that you don't have to be perfect to tell a story.

Jenny of the Tetons (Great Episodes)took nine months to write and research. I visited the Shoshone-Bannock reservation where elder Emma Dann demonstrated how to raise a tipi and what Jenny would have used as diapers: the soft pulpy bark from sagebrush! I interviewed Maude Miner, one of the first white babies born in Idaho Territory, and who had met Beaver Dick as a child. When I asked what he was like, she said that during his visits her mother would have to open all the windows: "Sometimes he was clean, sometimes he wa'rnt," she explained.

After a discouraging string of rejections, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published Jenny in 1989. Then to my utter amazement The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators [SCBWI] gave it the Golden Kite Award for fiction. It was a grand beginning!

1 comment:

Heather Spiva said...

What a great and inspirational story Kristiana!
Thanks for sharing. Loved the part about your boys[not]taking a nap.