The Saga of Deborah Whitney
Katie Willmarth Green, Sierra County Past, Present and Future
by David Laurence Wilson
Katie Willmarth Green, journalist, musician, and mother of four boys, has always been a wandering gal, moving from Los Angeles to Sierra County and then Berkeley during her childhood. Now she lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, an old lead mining town one hour’s drive from the college town of Madison. It is a setting reminiscent of her old life at Sierra County’s “Shady Flat”, where her nickname was “Dusty Feet”.
Green came by the traveling itch naturally, niece of an original “Rockett”, daughter of the beloved “Pancho”, the late caricaturist Frank Willmarth, whose sketches are still featured on the walls of many Sierra homes and businesses.
A caricaturist is a hybrid in the world of culture, a quick-sketch artist, an entertainer and busker. “Pancho” was a master of the art, setting up where and whenever he could find a few square feet to operate, at L.A.’s Olvera Street, Hollywood’s Brown Derby and the “Teenage Fair” at the Palladium, the San Francisco Press Club and California State Fair. “Pancho” stuck with his seasonal regimen until his nineties, producing thousands and thousands of portraits on big sheets of tissue-like paper.
This week Katie Green, along with her brothers Ken and Roger, returned to the Downieville and Loyalton schools to present her new historical novel for young readers, Deborah Whitney of Shady Flat. The book is a project that began when her family moved from the Los Angeles area to Shady Flat, four miles Northeast of Downieville.
Today the stretch of Highway 49 between Downieville and Sierra City is a scenic highway with campgrounds, fishing spots, and place names that refer to the characters and events of local history. One hundred years ago these names identified living, vibrant communities with distinctive identities. As Forest Service policy has destroyed the archaeological record of these settlements, Green became determined to preserve their memories, to put a face on those names. Her first book about these pioneers was Like A Leaf Upon The Current Cast (2001), a collection of “ghost stories,” she says, “because all these people have been forgotten.”
The real work of Deborah Whitney began with a misstep, when Green took a fall and ended up with a fractured kneecap and ten weeks of sitting. Her thoughts returned to Sierra County, Shady Flat and even earlier times in the gold camps, an intuitive effort spurred by persistent questions from the children who toured the Kentucky Mine, where Green was a volunteer guide. Enough about the miners -- they wanted to know what it was like to be a kid in those gold rush years.
Green also brought her own frustrations to this effort. She believes that both women and children have been sorely underserved in our histories and she wanted to provide a voice for those missing points of view. Accordingly, she has written a fictionalized history of Deborah Whitney, a ten year old girl in the gold camps. The writing took her two years.
Deborah Whitney was the only child to have actually been born at the Shady Flat Mining District, a community that never numbered more than 14 at any given time. Later, Deborah and her father left the mining camp after the death of her mother Eliza, resettling in San Francisco. Eliza Gambee Whitney is buried in the Downieville cemetery. Deborah herself lived until 1951.
It was difficult, Green says, to separate her own experiences from those of Ms. Whitney. She too lived at Shady Flat, and she played among the same rocks and trees that Whitney had enjoyed. The cover of the novel is a portrait not of Whitney, but of Green at the same age, a pastel drawing produced by her father, “Pancho”.
The ethos of those long-ago mining days was to exploit the land and move on to new territory. Trees were cut, the Yuba’s North Fork diverted and diverted again. “It was ugly,” Green says. “It was polluted. A cesspool. There was gender, racial and national prejudice. There was a lot of violence and corruption.” Life was tough, often short, and for women and children there was little comfort. Ultimately the women and children -- those who stuck -- were a civilizing influence.
Green recognizes the colorful history of the the ne'er-do-wells, the dramatic impact of tragedy, but in the scenes of the new book she also wants to echo the sentiments of the great historian H. H. Bancroft, who added another point of view to the margins of his own history of the era: P. S. .. “but there were also a lot of decent people, too.” Green doesn’t want to lose that sense of decency amongst the thieves and brigands of the day.
Green wanted her character to be “the voice of reason.” She compares Whitney to the child in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: “Over the history of literature it has been the children who see the truth,” she says.
At the Downieville School, as she sat on the floor with the kindergartners, the first and second graders, the children were eager to share their own memories and experiences. The older kids had questions about gold mines and Green’s own school days in Downieville during the nineteen forties, when girls were forbidden from basketball and volleyball, a notion that brought gasps from her audience.
Another student asked: “What do you find most interesting about Downieville?”
“That it’s still here,” she said.
When asked what question she would ask Deborah Whitney, if she had the opportunity, Green paused for a long moment, as though she had never considered the unlikely possibility.
“I would ask her how it felt to leave Sierra County,” she said. “How hard was that adjustment?”
According to Green, it was difficult to write a book that would appeal to both children and their parents. A journalist by trade, she had never intended to write fiction. Later, after making the rounds of New York publishers she decided to self-publish, as she had done with her earlier book on the vanished Yuba River settlements.
Green is now working on a sequel to Deborah Whitney, an effort that will complete the story of one year in the young girl’s life. Deborah and her father will spend a summer mining below the Sierra Buttes. Green is 100 pages into the second novel.
Green admits that it was sometimes difficult growing up with an eccentric, well-known father. She was uncomfortable when he invited the old miners of the area to their family dinners. Now she has embraced the pleasure that “Pancho” so graciously gave to others.
“Go forth,” she told the young adults at Downieville School, “Go forth and become characters.”