I write novels about historical women who might be considered ordinary but whom I think are extraordinary. Often, I can meet with descendants. I treasure their family stories that give me insight and direction for further research.
Jennie Parrish’s story in All She Left Behind started with a descendant who wrote that an Indian agent I had mentioned in a 1996 novel was her ancestor. “His second wife was the first woman pediatrician in Portland Oregon in 1879.” We stayed in touch (Audrey Slater is a great reader) and when Jennie’s story called my name, this kind descendant sent me a copy of the diploma. But where to go from there?
I couldn’t find out much about Jennie’s missionary husband who was prominent in Oregon history. That often happens: I’ll know more about a woman’s husband, father, brother and sons than about her or her daughters, if she had them. Pioneer women’s lives often seem more reflected in their spouses than shining on their own.
As I began my research, I received another letter from a reader. She’d just moved from Tennessee to Portland and felt the push to offer her research services. It turns out that CarolAnne Tsai was not only a fan, but she was a clinical social worker (like me) and her specialty was medical research (not like me!). I couldn’t afford a researcher but we worked out expenses and CarolAnne set out. It was grand! She visited medical libraries, archives, historical societies. We found out that Jennie’s father was a “tent minister” and a legislator, her brother a botanist, another brother, a lawyer. And we discovered that Josiah Parrish, her husband, was 37 years older than Jennie. A local reporter saw them on their honeymoon and wrote of it in the Oregonian: “The old man and the young woman look genuinely happy.” An historical marriage announcement, I guess.
Because Jennie’s husband was an early territorial Methodist minister, CarolAnne suggested we contact the Methodist Archives in Philadelphia. Voila! A medical-bag full of digital information arrived including newspaper articles about the death of a daughter, Jennie’s graduation from Medical School, receipts for her medical books ordered from San Francisco, names of papers she presented to the medical society, programs of her daughter’s piano performances, even her office hours serving “women and children.”
We also found Jennie’s will – and the mention of a first marriage and a very troubled son. The will opened the door to the trials and tribulations that Jennie had endured and had to leave behind to pursue her dream to become a physician.
Of course, all that information didn’t tell us how Jennie felt about all these events. A biography tells us what, when and where something happened; but it doesn’t allow the speculation of why something happened and how a person might have felt. That’s the purview of fiction and why I love historical novels. I used to worry that I was putting feelings and motivations into the mouths of people who had once walked and breathed. Then I read this quote from novelist Virginia Woolf. “Women’s history must be invented…both uncovered and made up.” Yes! That’s what I do: uncover and invent.
I shared Jennie’s will and other information we’d uncovered with her descendants. They read them and though the information took us far beyond the story of an early woman physician, they told me, “We trust you. You go wherever this story takes you.”
All She Left Behind took me to an inspiring story of love, devotion, perseverance and of doing something because it was a good thing to do regardless of how it turned out. And it gave me a new appreciation for family stories, research and for letter-writing fans.
More about All She Left Behind:
Already well-versed in the natural healing properties of herbs and oils, Jennie Pickett longs to become a doctor. But the Oregon frontier of the 1870s doesn’t approve of such innovations as women attending medical school. To leave grief and guilt behind, as well as support herself and her challenging young son, Jennie cares for an elderly woman using skills she’s developed on her own. When her patient dies, Jennie discovers that her heart has become entangled with the woman’s widowed husband, a man many years her senior. Their unlikely romance may lead her to her ultimate goal—but the road will be winding and the way forward will not always be clear. Will Jennie find shelter in life’s storms? Will she discover where healing truly lives?
Through her award-winning, layered storytelling, New York Times bestselling author Jane Kirkpatrick invites readers to leave behind their preconceived notions about love and life as they, along with Jennie, discover that dreams may be deferred—but they never really die. Based on a true story.
Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times and CBA bestselling and award-winning author of more than thirty books, including A Light in the Wilderness, The Memory Weaver, This Road We Traveled, and A Sweetness to the Soul, which won the prestigious Wrangler Award from the Western Heritage Center. Her works have won the WILLA Literary Award, USABestBooks, the Carol Award for Historical Fiction, and the 2016 Will Rogers Medallion Award. Jane lives in Central Oregon with her husband, Jerry. Learn more at www.jkbooks.com.