Oakley Hall combines fact, fiction in the Old West

June 29, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Oakley Hall's 21st novel, "Separations," weaves together many strands of stories from the Old West. It's an adventure story that describes an 1882 trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, a trip underwritten in part by a San Francisco literary magazine. The action shifts from literary San Francisco and magazine editor Mary Temple to the raging waters of the Colorado River, the expedition crew, and the wild countryside surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Writing this novel must have pleased Hall, who had the opportunity to delve into and research many of his favorite myths of the era. He tells us about railroad barons intent on raping the land, Mormon settlers determined to keep strangers out, pioneer girls kidnapped by Indians, and Mexican landowners scorned by society.

Hall and his wife live in San Francisco during the winter months and in Squaw Valley during the summer. Hall has directed the Squaw Valley Community of Writers for nearly 30 years and was, for 20 years, the director of writing programs at UC Irvine.

"Oakley Hall is the closest person I can think of as a successor to Wallace Stegner, not only in his personal character but in his serious literary attention to the West," said Jack Hicks of the English department at UC Davis. "I think of him in the same category, too, as Stegner in terms of influence - he's enormously well-known and respected by writers throughout the country," he added.

Hall wrote a short paper about the origins of "Separations" in which he described how his various historical interests became part of a single narrative. It began, he said, with the San Francisco house he and his wife live in, a cottage built in 1865 that survived the earthquake and fire.

"Ina Coolbrith once inhabited the house my wife and I live in on Macondray Lane (on Russian Hill)," he said. "Her poetry seems a bit flimsy now but in the late 19th century she was a California poet of national renown. She was a member of what was called the Golden Gate Trinity, the editors of the 'Overland Monthly' ; Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard and Bret Harte."

Hall, who had recently taken a three-week trip down the Colorado River, decided to combine, in novel form, an exploration of the Grand Canyon with 1880s San Francisco. The Grand Canyon narrative, which is the larger part of the novel, is based on the Stanton expedition down the canyon following two expeditions by Major John Wesley Powell.

Hall combines Western fact and fiction effectively, to the extent that readers may be interested in following up on the real lives of some of his characters -- for instance, Bret Harte. We meet Harte in the San Francisco side of "Separations" as he runs the magazine with the Ina Coolbrith or Mary Temple character.

A collection of Bret Harte's best short stories has recently been re-issued by Heyday Books of Berkeley in "Bret Harte's Gold Rush." The art chosen for the front cover of the book is entirely appropriate - it's "Sunday Morning at the Mines," a painting by Charles Christian Nahl done in 1872 that shows half the miners carousing and the others studying the Bible. The celebrated painting is on permanent display at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

Harte, at his best, concentrated on romantic short stories about the 1850s in California. "Outcasts of Poker Flat," "The Luck of Roaring Camp," are some of the better-known stories in the collection.

This is how Reuben H. Margolin describes Harte in the introduction: "He sported a mustache that he kept curled at the tips. With his vaguely effete mannerisms, and standing only medium height, he was something of a dandy compared to the long-haired, unshaven, buckskin fringed and swaggering bullies he would meet and eventually mythologize."

By 1868 Harte had published his first collection of short stories and was made editor of the new Overland Monthly in San Francisco. After several very successful years as one of California's leading writers, he decided, unwisely, to move back East.

By 1882, the year that the fictitious "Separations" took place, Harte, feeling unloved and unpopular, no longer lived in the United States. He had moved with his family to Europe and died in England.

So, read "Separations" and see if you can recognize some of the historical characters that Hall thinly disguises. There's Coolbrith, Stoddard and Harte, yes, but also Clarence King of the U.S. Geological Survey, John Muir, and the lesser known Joaquin Miller and his daughter Cali-Shasta.

Hall even brings into play a fictional murderess, an 18-year-old prostitute known as the Eureka Fury, based on the Placerville legend. Placerville was called Hangtown in those early years because the miners there hanged a woman who had murdered her pimp.

Hall brings these and other colorful characters into his novel, leaving the reader eager for more tales of the Old West.

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