Evelyn Sibley Lampman wrote kick-ass YA books in the 1960’s
Long before there was dystopian YA this and that; long before YA tackled subjects like teen pregnancy, broken homes, drug abuse; way before all that there was Evelyn Sibley Lampman and she wrote kick-ass books for kids, circa 1960.
I’m showing her picture here which isn’t fair I suppose because her face will take you away. Even if you look at the picture for a second you find yourself wanting to hear what she has to say. You will want to touch her re-cut man suit very lightly on the jacket sleeve to draw her attention; you will want to catch her eye out of the corner of your eye in hopes of sharing a half smile; you will want to put aside all the books you have heaped next to your bed and go searching high and low for her books in hope there is the wee-est chance she hovers still in the ether and your search will please her.
I want to tell you some things about Evelyn before I tell you about her book:
Evelyn was a child of Oregon. Her great-great grandparents were Oregon pioneers and she grew up hearing their stories as told to her by father who was a lawyer in Dallas, Oregon. She was a country girl. In 1929 she graduated from Oregon State University, moved to Portland and became a copywriter for radio. She won awards for her work. (Country girl moves into the city professional life with apparent ease).
In 1934, Evelyn married into a writing family. Her husband was the Oregonian’s Fish & Wildlife editor. Her father in-law was named Ben Hur Lampman and he ran the Oregonian’s editorial page. Ben Hur was also Oregon’s first Poet Laureate (his name//his destiny). So it sounds like this could have been a fine family for this smart talented woman to have married into. But the truth is, the sad part is (for me) after Evelyn got married she quit her job and was forbidden by her husband to even drive a car.
What would have happened if he had lived? Who knows. But here are the facts: at 35 Evelyn was a widow and had 2 kids to raise. So she went back to radio work and she had her husband’s suits sized to fit her. Someone on the interwebs said she may have been the first woman to wear trousers to work in Portland. (That doesn’t sound right to me, but no doubt she was breaking stereotypes and making her own rules all over the place at this point).
Her first novel, Crazy Creek, was published in 1947 (or ’48, the info is varied) and is a YA story about pioneer life in Oregon. By the time her 2nd book was published – Treasure Mountain– Evelyn was able to mothball those re-cut guy suits and focus on writing.
They say her books (40 or 50 of them depending on the source) are “meticulously-researched historical and science fiction novels for young adults”. Evelyn loved the Pacific Northwest, Pacific Northwest history and was particularly intrigued by Native Americans. When she wrote about Native Americans she was sympathetic in her portrayal of their characters which was amazing for the time.
She was an author beloved by the teachers in my grade school. In those first years of school Evelyn’s books were a frequent choice to be read aloud during ‘rest’ period. We couldn’t get enough of those stories, stories about courageous boys and girls who came across on The Trail (no need to preface that with Oregon). Her books encouraged us to be brave and curious like her characters. She teased our imaginations and made us want to be the Indians rather than the Cowboys. We began to think of the Other more sympathetically. We created intricate make-believe Oregon Trail games. We had clear visions of how we would have made it over the final hairy patch on The Trail, the Blue Mountains. We envisioned ourselves running down the descent perhaps barefooted, certainly dirty and hungry and maybe even orphaned. (Please God, let us be orphaned!)
I found White Captives in the Big Blue Lincoln City book store in February. I held it in my hands and went all dizzy with nostalgia and glee. I hadn’t thought of Evelyn or her stories for many years.
I’m not going to tell you much about the book. Swing by the Oregon house sometime. You can read it for yourself. It is a real life tale about Indians kidnapping two young girls off The Trail after they murdered the girls’ parents and brothers. Besides murder and kidnapping it’s a story about slavery, illness, hunger, anger, grinding work and being very alone in an alien culture.
There isn’t a lot of subtle beauty waiting to be exposed in this story. Boys aren’t sneaking sly glances at the main characters. No one rises above the horrific circumstances to become a hero. This is not the YA dystopic literature of the 21st century. This is YA dystopia circa Lampman. Read it and be amazed at the toughness and honesty and the pure adventure of it all.