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Kristina McMorris knows what it felt like to stand in a cell at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary; she knows what it was like to hear footsteps down the corridors there; and she has even looked up at the gas canisters on the ceiling of the mess hall there, knowing they would have been deployed if a riot broke out.


SUBMITTED PHOTO - Happy Valley author Kristina McMorris stands outside the cell of an escapee, which is part of the tour of Alcatraz, the former federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.The Happy Valley author wanted to immerse herself in the atmosphere of Alcatraz, which plays a major role in her newly released sixth book, “The Edge of Lost.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO - 'The Edge of Lost,' Kristina McMorris's sixth book, intertwines stories of inmates at Alcatraz and the lives of immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s.McMorris will sign copies of her book and make a visual presentation of the history of Alcatraz and the little-known facts about the former prison at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the Happy Valley Library, 13793 S.E. Sieben Parkway.

The Rock’

Like many others, McMorris was intrigued by the stories and mystery surrounding the former high-security federal prison, located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. The island housed the prison from 1933 to 1963; it is now a national park, but stories about its inmates and some of their possible escapes still capture the public’s interest.

“The Edge of Lost” begins in 1937, when the 10-year-old daughter of the warden goes missing, and the only person who knows her whereabouts is a convicted bank robber, who works in the warden’s greenhouse.

Both of their lives depend on the search’s outcome, McMorris said.

“Then the story backs up to Dublin in 1919, where Shanley Keagan, an aspiring vaudevillian, realizes his dream to cross the Atlantic and come to America. But tragedy strikes en route and soon the two stories intertwine,” she said.

McMorris chose these two time periods for the setting of her novel, because she has always had a fascination with the 1920s and 1930s.

That’s “the height of the mobster era and an interesting time in our history. There was unemployment and the Depression, but the book is about getting through the hardest times and finding hope. That stays relevant no matter what the era,” she said.

Personal ties, research

The book deals with the plight of Irish and Italian immigrants in that time period, and McMorris’s grandfather on her mother’s side had Irish roots, so she has read plenty of memoirs from those who passed through Ellis Island.

McMorris lived in Florence, Italy, during some of her college years, and has always loved the Italian culture.

But it was the Alcatraz research that proved to be the most exciting for her.

She said she read an enormous amount of memoirs and historical texts about Alcatraz, but it was during a nighttime tour of Alcatraz that all she had studied beforehand came to life.

“I knew what I was looking for, [and after the tour] all the pieces fit together,” McMorris said.

She took especially great delight in speaking to some of the authors of the documentaries about the prison, and also asked the park rangers on the island “a zillion questions.”

She also spoke to the daughter of an associate warden who spent time at the prison from 1962 to 1963, when it closed.

“She said the warden was away, and her father was on duty when the great escape happened and he actually investigated that incident,” McMorris said, referring to the June 1962 Alcatraz escape, which may have been the only successful escape from Alcatraz in the facility’s history.

Three inmates, Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris, managed to depart the island on an improvised raft, and were never found. McMorris said a History Channel documentary released just weeks ago “verified that at least two of the escapees did go on to live in Brazil for many years.”

Of course, McMorris also thoroughly researched the New York City setting details; this also was personal to her, as she has been to New York many times and has family in the area. And she has visited Ireland, where she has family roots, and has always loved the scenery there, along with the people.

But “what has helped the most is getting books, historical scrapbooks and memoirs from that time,” she said.

‘Fun’ facts about prison

PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Kristina McMorris will sign copies of her newest book at two events on Dec. 6, in Portland, and Dec. 8 at the Happy Valley Library.McMorris doesn’t want to give too much away about her upcoming presentation on Dec. 8, but she does take a fiendish delight in relating what she calls the “fun facts” about Alcatraz.

“Al Capone was once reprimanded and punished for not eating the outside edges of his cake,” she said, adding that it was severely frowned upon to waste food while in the prison.

Machine Gun Kelly was an altar boy while he was at Alcatraz, and Pretty Boy Floyd attempted an escape, and did manage to hide in one of the dark caves on the island, but the snapping crabs and the cold temperatures got the better of him, and he gave himself up, McMorris said.

Several fun facts about McMorris herself, is that this book is written from the male point of view, which she really enjoyed, and “this book has the most twists and turns,” compared to her other books.

“The Edge of Lost” is available online at Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble, but for those who want a signed copy and cannot make it to the Happy Valley Library on Dec. 8, McMorris and more than 80 other local writers will sign books from noon to 4 p.m. on Dec. 6, at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., in Portland, as part of the Holiday Cheer event. Admission is free.

“It’s a great opportunity to buy Christmas gifts,” for the book lover, McMorris said, adding that it also is a wonderful chance for her to meet other authors. More information at ohs.org/shop/holiday-cheer.cfm.

Alcatraz!

What: Kristina McMorris will sign copies of her new book, “The Edge of Lost,” and stage a visual presentation about Alcatraz, where part of the book takes place.

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8

Where: Happy Valley Library, 13793 S.E. Sieben Parkway

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