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Two authors inspired by same trial

Two local authors, Phillip Margolin and R. Gregory Nokes, will discuss their books, which both relate to slavery in early Oregon, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at the Atkinson Church in Oregon City. This free event is sponsored by the Oregon City Public Library.

Margolin, an award-winning Portland author of best-selling legal thrillers, switches to the historical setting of 1860s Oregon in “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” while Nokes, a journalist and nonfiction writer from West Linn, looks at slavery in Oregon’s early history from another point of view with his book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.”

Both authors, who were inspired by the same legal case, will read from their works at the event, and answer questions afterward.

'Worthy Brown’s Daughter'

Margolin spent three decades researching his historical novel, inspired by a true story of frontier justice in 19th-century Oregon, Holmes vs. Ford, and the horrors the Holmes family, who were freed slaves, went through to get their children returned to them.

In “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” readers meet Matthew Penny, a lawyer who is mourning the loss of his wife while struggling to maintain his practice, and Worthy Brown, an ex-slave whose daughter is being held captive, in unexpected and suspicious circumstances. Surrounded by love, deceit, racism and, most importantly, the law, Penny, Brown and the rest of Portland get swept away by the court case of the century.

“In order to write the book I had to learn what it would have been like to practice law in Oregon in 1860. I was surprised to learn that there were no courthouses in the state and trials might be held in a field in summer or a tavern in winter,” Margolin said.

In addition, “accommodations were scarce and the parties often shared beds in one-room cabins with families who would put them up for a fee.”

Another thing that surprised Margolin while researching “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” was the difference between the way law is practiced now and the way it was practiced in the Wild West of the 1800s, he said.

“I was a criminal defense attorney for 25 years. Lawyers in the 1800s had to know not only the law, but how to shoot a gun. They had to ride the circuit, which meant sleeping in the wilds, dealing with bad weather and wild animals,” he said.

Margolin loves to talk about writing and is “especially excited to talk about my new book, ‘Worthy Brown's Daughter,’ because it is a departure for me. My other 17 bestsellers are all contemporary thrillers, but ‘Worthy Brown's Daughter’ is set in Oregon in 1860. It was inspired by a real, heartbreaking case that was the only Oregon case to deal with slavery, and it took me 30 years to complete.”

He added, “Author events are important because they give readers a chance to ask writers questions about the craft of writing, the background for a book, and other things they can’t get by simply reading a novel.”

Breaking Chains’

“Breaking Chains” tells the little-known history of slavery in early Oregon, focusing on an 1852 slavery case, the only slavery case adjudicated in Oregon’s pre-Civil War courts.

Author Nokes will show pictures “of some of the key figures involved in Oregon’s slave story and the 1852 trial, Holmes vs. Ford, in which a former slave sued his former slave owner for the freedom of Holmes’ children, still being held by Ford as slaves,” he said.

The trial was held in Polk County, and was unusual for several reasons.

“The former slave, Robin Holmes, was illiterate, and Nathaniel Ford, his former owner, was quite prominent, recently elected to the territorial Legislature. Ford had brought Holmes and his family of six to Oregon with him in 1844 from Missouri, traveling on the Oregon Trail to Oregon City and then on to what is today Polk County,” Nokes said.

He became interested in the situation, after learning that an ancestor of his, Robert Shipley, brought a slave with him to Oregon from Missouri in 1853.

“I only discovered this a few years ago. I had not known, nor suspected, there was any slave history in the background of my family. Nor had I known there were African-American slaves in Oregon,” Nokes said.

He was most surprised during his research to learn how many of Oregon’s early leaders were pro-slavery, including Joseph Lane, Oregon’s first territorial governor and one of the first U.S. senators from the state.

“I was also surprised that Oregon, for much of its early history, had an exclusion law that prohibited African-Americans from settling in the territory, and later the state, even though these laws weren’t widely enforced,” Nokes said, adding that he also learned that Oregon voters, all white males at the time, “actually voted in 1857 on whether Oregon should be a slave state, although they voted it down.”

He added: “These events are important for getting the story of Oregon’s early slave and racial history into our public discourse. I believe we need to learn from our past to know how far we have come and how far we still need to go. It’s also especially interesting to me to know how Phil Margolin developed a fictional narrative.”

R. Gregory Nokes

R. Gregory Nokes has traveled the world as a reporter and editor. He started his 40-year journalism career at the Medford Mail Tribune. He went on to work for The Associated Press in Salt Lake City; New York City; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and in Washington, D.C., where he covered the State Department. He joined The Oregonian in 1986 and retired in 2003 to begin a second career as an author and lecturer.

He has written two nonfiction Northwest histories: “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon in 2009,” and his newest book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory in 2013,” both published by Oregon State University Press. “Breaking Chains” has been selected by The Oregonian as the sixth best on its list of 2013 top-10 books in the Pacific Northwest. It also was chosen as the fall 2013 selection for the Oregon Book Club.

Visit clackamasreview.com next week for information about Margolins upcoming visit to Ledding Library.

Listen and learn

What: Oregon City Public Library sponsors Author Night

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30; doors open at 6:30 p.m

Where: Atkinson Church, 710 Sixth St., Oregon City

Who: Local authors Phillip Margolin and R. Gregory Nokes will speak

Contact: For more information, call 503-657-8269, ext. 104, or visit orcity.org/library.



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