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Author to discuss girl who became a 1920s literary sensation, controversial figure
An Oregon author will sort through the legendary tale of a young Cottage Grove girl who became a well-known expert on the natural world and a literary prodigy almost a century ago before dying in an English insane asylum.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Steve McQuiddy will discuss the life of Opal Whiteley and his work, "The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley" at the Elsie Stuhr Center, 5550 S.W. Hall Blvd. The event is part of the Beaverton Historical Society's monthly lecture series.
An author and freelance writer whose pieces have appeared in Salon, Mother Jones and other magazines, McQuiddy and the Lane County Historical Society published in 2013 his 40-page monograph — a shorter piece of non-fiction that focuses on a single subject using original scholarship and research — detailing Whiteley's extraordinary life.
McQuiddy has been fascinated for more than 20 years with Whiteley, whose childhood diary, "The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart," became a bestseller in 1920. The young woman claimed throughout her life to have written the diary at age 6, an extraordinary piece of work for her age, her supporters said at the time. McQuiddy said he became interested in the topic when an editor gave him a press release on a local nature celebration that "had to do with a crazy lady from Cottage Grove" in the 1990s.
"She was young, she was precocious, delightful and charming," McQuiddy said in an interview from his Eugene residence Monday.
The story intrigued McQuiddy because it deals with someone who is creative, highly developed and has exceptional intelligence. Her life and love of nature in many respects made her Oregon's first hippie, the author noted.
And her notoriety hasn't dwindled, McQuiddy noted.
In 2010, a special showing viewing of Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Oregon Experience" piece on Whiteley resulted in a large turnout in Cottage Grove on a particularly dark and rainy winter's night.
"The place was packed," said McQuiddy, who teaches writing at Lane Community College. "There were more than 200 people."
McQuiddy said although there have been three books written about Whitely, no one has ever listed their sources the way he has, complete with extensive footnotes in "The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley."
"What's interesting (is) this story continues to bring out the strongest reactions from people," he said. "People are incredibly invested in this story."
Whiteley was known as a prodigy and gifted writer. McQuiddy writes that she would eventually come to the attention of the editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel. who introduced her to readers of his newspaper in 1915, equating her life in some ways to Jesus, specifically referring to the audiences Jesus drew during his teachings in the temple before wise men.
Before long, Whiteley would end up in the offices of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who wasn't interested in the book she wanted published but asked her if she happened to have a diary.
"Yes, she had," writes McQuiddy. "But it was torn to bits, ostensibly by a jealous sister. Opal, however, had saved the pieces in an enormous hat box."
The thousands and thousands of pages were than pieced together.
Part of the allure to McQuiddy in writing about Whiteley was trying to figure out exactly who she was. The question has been whether she was simply a young girl with encyclopedic knowledge who "befriended the animals, birds, flowers and trees ... and professed her love of all natural things," or was whether she was the French princess she often claimed to be, having been kidnaped when she was a child.
Some have speculated she may have had some type of mental illness or perhaps had Asperger syndrome.
So what does McQuiddy say when people ask his opinion of who she really was?
"The only answer I can give them (is) 'I don't know,'" he said, pointing out that the actions of people who have attained legendary status can't be proved or disproved."
However, he said, her story is both irresistible and fantastic, noting that much of what she claims throughout her life seems impossible "and yet there's enough evidence to show these things could potentially happen."
"Where I try to put myself ... I'm not going to claim this is true or this is not true," said McQuiddy. "Clearly she was different."
Even though his work on Whiteley has been out for some time, he said his research on her never stops.
Meanwhile, McQuiddy's other noted work — "Here on the Edge: How a small group of World War II Conscientious Objectors took Art and Peace from the Margins to the Mainstream" — was published by Oregon State University Press in 2013 and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
McQuiddy's Beaverton Historical Society presentation will include a slideshow and a follow-up question and answer session.
Proceeds from "The Fantastic Tale of Opal Whiteley" will go to the Lane County Historical Society.
For more information, visit McQuiddy's website at hereontheedge.com.