The Lesley women who participate in Burning Fence
offer insight into the way women's education and roles have evolved in the West. They show progression from little or no choice to many opportunities.
My grandmother, Anna Jackson Lesley, lived in the remote woods near Tillamook, Oregon, and claimed that my grandfather, Jasper Lesley, was about the first man she knew other than family members. To escape her plight with a worthless stepfather and equally unqualified mother, she married my grandfather when she was 15 and he was 40. She never attended school but taught herself to read and write at about a 4th grade level.
Basically, she traded one hardscrabble life for another. They had seven children in the Lost River area of Tillamook County but found working the land was too hard, so they decided to move inland to Monument in Grant County. This was an arduous journey with so many children and she traded the rainy Tillamook area for the cold, dry, harsh interior. For a while, they lived in a place called Hardman, and the country was indeed hard for man and woman.
In Monument, she had five more children (including my father, Rudell), and when her oldest daughter died of diptheria, Anna raised her three as well. Her diaries reveal that she never had any love in her life, that she married "for convenience." She had a baby in the house for twenty-eight straight years.
My mother, Hazel Lange Seavey, attended high school in the Dalles and graduated second in her class. She started college at Linfield in McMinnville, but college proved too expensive with no aid available, and my grandfather insisted she would do better as a clerk or secretary in the Dalles. She was a terrific secretary, a stickler for detail and correct grammar, a major influence on my writing career.
However, secretarial jobs were low paying for the most part, and after my father left, she had to support me, and later my half-sister, Ronna, on her low wages. Having raised two children of my own, I really can't figure how she did it, but we always had a place to live, school clothes from J.C. Penney's, and shoes that fit. She retired almost thirty years ago after working for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Many people have commented that she's the real hero of the book because she did all the hard work in raising me. I couldn't agree more.
My wife, Katheryn Stavrakis Lesley, was able to graduate from college and graduate school with an advanced degree in Fiction Writing. Even though it SEEMS as if she had a lot of choices, her parents were from the old country and believed you should attend school in or near your home town. As a result, her college years were spent living at home and attending the University of Delaware. While UD had many excellent classes, she would have preferred to attend another college.
She is a wonderful writer herself and a fierce editor. Russian, she grew up reading those great souls and settles for (almost) nothing less.
For our daughters, Kira Lesley and Elena Lesley, the possibilities seem wonderful in their variety. Kira attended St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Oregon, and gave the valedictorian's speech with Governor Ted Kulongoski in the audience. She is currently a student at Brown University majoring in religious studies. She's enjoyed internships at Portland magazine and editing material for St. Martin's Press.
Elena also attended Brown, majoring in political science and graduating with top honors. She received a Luce Fellowship and spent a year in Cambodia working for an English-language newspaper. Now she is back in the U.S. working as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
As I wrote the memoir, the evolution of opportunities for women struck me as parallel in some ways to the settlement and advance of the West. We've moved from farming and timber to Microsoft and communications.
And the advances for women have proven to be a major partof that development.
I can't leave off without asking people to see Eastern Oregon. It's spectacular, rugged, wild, and undeveloped in many ways. In atmosphere and politics, Eastern Oregon shares more in common with Wyoming and Montana than with the Willamette Valley. I write about Eastern Oregon, its small towns, its colorful characters, because that's where my heart is. I want people to really see it, get out of their cars and walk, catch some brook trout in the wild streams near the Strawberry Mountains, go to the Spray Rodeo, see the giant cougars (stuffed) in the John Day U.S. Bank. And I'd like to have them go to Monument to see the absolutely amazing rock formations, cliffs, and rivers.
If they stop off and look at some old juniper-post fence, they might even see part of my father's life's work. A lot has burned up in forest fires, but his river pasture fence still endures.
Finally, I would like to thank Powell's for this opportunity to blog and many thanks to the readers. A writer always appreciates the readers.
All the best, Craig Lesley