Words

A brief appraisal of the life and work Northwest writer Evelyn Sibley Lampman on her 101st birthday.

18.April 2008
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An Oregon writer.

A reflection on the 101st birthday of Northwest author and accidental feminist Evelyn Sibley Lampman

Today is the Oregon writer Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s 101st birthday. She was a remarkable woman: the only child of a country lawyer, Lampman graduated in 1929 from Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) and moved to Portland, where she became a respected and award-winning copywriter for KEX radio. In 1934, she married into what passed in those days for a celebrated literary family: her husband, Herbert Sheldon Lampman, was Fish & Wildlife editor for the Oregonian; his father, the theatrically-named Ben Hur Lampman, ran the Oregonian‘s editorial page and was our state’s first Poet Laureate.1 But writing, to that family, was man’s work: After marriage, she left her job and was forbidden to drive; her new husband thought operating an automobile unseemly for a woman.

A publicity image of Evelyn Sibley Lampman, probably from around 1945.

A publicity still of Evelyn Sibley Lampman, probably taken in the mid-1940s, when she was making the transition from radio writer to novelist.

Widowed at 35, with six- and three-year-old daughters to support, she had her late husband’s suits cut down for her (the two were the same height) and returned to writing for radio. She may have been the first woman to wear trousers to work in Portland.2 In 1947, Doubleday published her debut novel, Crazy Creek, a story about pioneer life in Oregon for older children; two years later, when Doubleday accepted her second book, Treasure Mountain, she quit her day job. For the next thirty years, she survived as a single mother (she never remarried) by writing forty meticulously-researched3 historical and science fiction novels for young adults, which were in turn published by Doubleday, Harcourt Brace and eventually Atheneum, where she was placed under the prestigious Margaret K. McElderry imprint. She was fascinated by the history of the Northwest and particularly its native peoples; most of her best work concerned native Americans, to whom she was, at the time, unfashionably sympathetic: Once Upon A Little Big Horn tells the story of Custer’s Last Stand from Sitting Bull’s point of view; Cayuse Courage offers an ambiguous take on the Whitman Massacre (remember, these books were written for children in the middle of the 20th century).

Whatever her subject, her interest was in discovering how different human groups (whites and non-whites, pre-teen boys and girls, moderns and so-called primitives) could be similar: how amid the grinding of conflict, there are resonances and harmonies, too, to be heard, if you listen. She wrote for a living, and she wrote often (using a pseudonym so that she could publish more than once a year); but there is art there as well: a crisp, lively prose style, keen sensitivity to detail, and a broad humanity to her characters.

She died in 1980 of cancer of the bile duct. I was twelve years old. As you may have guessed, she was my maternal grandmother; my daughter, Maxine Sibley McIsaac, is her namesake.

Notes
  1. He was also kind of a prick. Upon the death of his son, he more or less cut his daughter-in-law and granddaughters out of his life.
  2. This is apocryphal, which is an academic term meaning "what my mother told me"; she may have been the first white-collar woman to wear trousers to work; during the Second World War, however, the Kaiser shipyards were filled with women building Liberty ships, who presumably did so wearing pants.
  3. Not as easy in the last century as it might be now. No Google, of course; and I remember that our family vacations were scheduled around her research trips and usually involved spending quality time on Indian reservations. This was during the AIM years, and native folks weren't too thrilled to talk to an old white lady. She had good friends in Indian Country, though, and her vast library was one of her few points of pride.