THE SAGA OF Opal Whiteley is one of the oddest stories to come out of an odd land. The Pacific Northwest, long known as the home of dreamers, geniuses and eccentrics, gave us a little girl from a logging camp who grew up to become one of the most notorious literary sensations of the 1920s - on the basis of one book that was out of print within a year.
It's a story of innocence and wonder, of a young girl in a young land. It's a story also of loneliness, tragedy and death, the hard life in rural Oregon at the century's turn. But more than that, it's a story of faith, of what we believe and perceive to be true. Every time the name of Opal Whiteley surfaces again, more and more people discover what many have been quietly felt for some time: Her diary just might be an American classic.
"The Story of Opal" was first published in 1920, when Opal was nearly 23. Subtitled "The Journal of An Understanding Heart," the book was celebrated as a work of wonder and imagination, if not genius. Purportedly written during her sixth and seventh years, it is a record of her trips through the woods outside what was then the timber town of Cottage Grove. Opal befriended the animals, birds, flowers and trees, giving them fantastic names from classical mythology, and professed her love for all natural things. "I do like it, this house we do live in, being at the edge of the near woods," she writes in the opening pages. "So many little people do live in the near woods. I do have conversations with them."
But not long after, Opal was declared a fraud. Charged with actually writing the diary when she was 20, the remarkable young woman with long, black hair and large, round eyes faced in turn rejection, obscurity and finally death in a London insane asylum.
But she keeps coming back, and interest in her now is stronger than ever. A half dozen versions of her story circulate today, from Seattle to South Carolina, from New York to England. There were two books reissued last year by major New York publishers - one the complete diary, and the other a verse adaptation. There's a children's book, an off-Broadway musical and a traveling one-woman play. There's even talk of a movie based on her life.
And Cottage Grove, the town that shunned her 75 years ago, has finally recognized her as its own, using her picture to promote its 1995 "Bohemia Days" celebration. There's Opal Park outside town as well, opened by a local mental-health group intending to use the natural surroundings in treating patients. They've been swamped during recent "Opal Whiteley weekends" by visitors wanting to learn more.
Opal Whiteley, maligned or misunderstood for three generations, has become a cause celebre for issues ranging from environmentalism and spiritual philosophy to child abuse and mental-health care - indicating her time has come, supporters say.
What happened exactly is still not certain, although author Benjamin Hoff clarifies much of the story in his thorough presentation, published by Penguin Books. "The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley" is a reprint of the diary, framed by Hoff's commentary and record of his complete investigation.
Hoff, best known for "The Tao of Pooh," dug through library and newspaper archives, interviewed hundreds of people (most who knew Opal have passed away) and encountered hundreds more theories and opinions. "There's all these theories," Hoff says. "But I think the reality of who and what she was is much more mystical and amazing."
OPAL WHITELEY WAS, by nearly all accounts, a child prodigy who also suffered from mental illness - probably schizophrenia. Born in Colton, Wash., in 1897 to Ed and Lizzie Whiteley, Opal could read and write by age 3. Her people were loggers, frequently moving from camp to camp. They were hardly prepared to deal with her talents - or her quirks.
"She was always a queer girl," her grandmother said in 1920. "When she wasn't chattering or asking questions, or reading or writing, she would be looking at nothing with big eyes, in what some people call a `brown study,' but what I call inattention and absent-mindedness."
Nor would Opal respond to the punishment of the day. "Switching didn't seem to make her any different," her grandmother said. "She would climb up in a big evergreen over the pigpen, and get to studying about something, and drop out of the tree into the mud. Lizzie would spank her or switch her, or if Lizzie wasn't feeling up to it, I would."
That evergreen tree Opal climbed might have been Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael, "a grand fir tree with an understanding soul." According to the diary, Opal would climb onto the barn roof and jump into the tree, nestle in the branches, or "arms," and have one of her conversations. "After I talked with him and listened unto his voice, I slipped down out of his arms. I intended to slip into the barn corral, but I slid off the wrong limb, in the wrong way. I landed in the pig-pen, on top of Aphrodite, the mother pig. She gave a peculiar grunt - it was not like those grunts she gives when she is comfortable."
With Aphrodite, Brave Horatius the shepherd dog and her other animal friends, Opal went "on explores," gathering thousands of specimens - plants and rocks and insects - which she studied with a dedication and voracity that would later amaze nearly all who met her. Opal became so knowledgeable about the natural world that she was giving lectures by the time she was 13, mainly to children. "On one of our mornings of nature study, we were in the city fairgrounds park," said a woman who'd attended Opal's classes, "and we would pledge friendship to a tree by holding up our hands."
In 1915, she came to the attention of Elbert Bede, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel. Opal, newly elected as state president of the Junior Christian Endeavor, outlined her plan to teach children about God by explaining to them the plants and trees, rocks and rivers and sea shells.
"To me, all of God's out-of-doors is one grand cathedral," she said, "and I daily learn that the child's heart unfolds to the true and beautiful."
"She is a product of the Oregon outdoors who knows that outdoors almost as well as the One who made it," Bede wrote in the Sentinel.
The following year, Opal entered the University of Oregon in Eugene, astounding professors with her knowledge of the natural sciences. But her numerous projects kept her so busy (she even left the house the day her mother died) that she lost her scholarship and tried to support herself through giving even more lectures.
Opal then moved to Los Angeles, hoping to finance her literary plans through a movie career. After being rejected at the major studios, she turned again to her studies, nearly exhausting herself in writing a book celebrating the scientific and mystical wonder of nature. She called it "The Fairyland Around Us," and though never commercially published, this book set in motion the chain of events that would make her a household name.
Her attempts with "Fairyland" led Opal to Boston, specifically to the office of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly and one of the most influential literary figures of his time. He didn't care much for the book Opal showed him, but he was enchanted by its author. She was "very young and eager and fluttering, like a bird in a thicket," he later wrote.
He asked her about her background. She told him. He was curious - had Opal kept a diary? Yes, she had, but it was torn to bits, ostensibly by a jealous sister. Opal, however, had saved the pieces in an enormous hat box. "We telegraphed for them, and they came, hundreds, thousands, one might almost say millions of them," Sedgwick wrote in his introduction to the book. "Some few were large as a half-sheet of note paper; more, scarce big enough to hold a letter of the alphabet."
Opal spent the next eight months in Boston, at the house of Sedgwick's mother-in-law, piecing together the diary like a jigsaw puzzle. It was then serialized in The Atlantic, beginning March 1920. The book came out in August, and was an overnight success. It gave a picture of life as seen through the eyes of a child, declared the New York Times, "eyes that have been touched."
"It will be like no book that ever was," said Life magazine, "and may grow up to become a classic."
The book certainly was unlike any other. The original manuscript, which Opal claimed she had kept in a hollow log, was written on a mish-mash of butcher paper, grocery bags and old envelopes. The letters were in colored pencil and crayon, left for her by "the fairies" (probably a neighbor woman or man) and the capital letters ran together with no punctuation, broken only at the edge of the paper. And the stories were charming tales of taking Peter Paul Rubens the pig to school, reading poems to William Shakespeare the horse, and the "Earth-voices" of the potatoes being dug from the ground:
"Earth-voices are glad voices, and earth-songs come up from the ground through the plants; and in their flowering, and in the days before these days are come, they do tell the earth-songs to the wind. And the wind in her goings does whisper them to folks to print for other folks, so other folks do have knowings of earth's songs. When I grow up, I am going to write for children - and grownups that haven't grown up too much - all the earth-songs I now do hear."
TO A WORLD weary and disillusioned from its first global war, this was a revelation. "She evokes this time that was prior to heavy industry and World War I," Hoff says. "But beyond that, she has this tremendous insight into not only human nature but all of nature."
That insight, perhaps, was costly. Along with the charming stories, odd phonetic spelling system and a syntax that reads like a literal translation from another language, Opal made a further claim: that she was in fact not Opal Whiteley, but the kidnapped daughter of a French prince - and she had been substituted for the real Opal Whiteley, who had drowned. Her "Angel Father," she said, was Henri d'Orleans, of the deposed royal family, who had died in India in 1901. Her "Angel Mother" had also died - in a shipwreck, according to Opal's book introduction. French words, too, and acrostics spelling out the Angel Father's name, were strung throughout the book.
After her true parents died, her guardians had taken her on a long trip, Opal wrote. "Then it was they put me with Mrs. Whiteley. The day they put me with her was a rainy day, and I thought she was a little afraid of them, too. She took me on the train and in the stage-coach to the lumber camp. She called me Opal Whiteley, the same name as that of another girl who was the same size as I was when her mother lost her."
This notion of being adopted - or kidnapped - is not so unusual, says Barbara Edwards, who grew up in communities around Cottage Grove and is now special counsel to the president at the University of Oregon. "I think most children, not just little girls in small towns, at some time in their life have the fantasy that they're adopted."
But the words in the book were real enough. Skepticism bred charges of fraud - begun by Elbert Bede - and spread like the wildfires that scorch the West each year. Reporters rushed to rural Oregon, where the confused residents offered conflicting testimonies, or refused to speak at all.
Bede churned out article after article, and the national media picked it up with relish. By the time the Harvard Advocate chimed in with a parody of Opal's story, "Isette Likely," the Whiteley family had left town and changed their name. Soon enough, the book was out of print, and Opal out of the country.
OPAL RESURFACED in London in 1948, starving and surrounded by books in a crumbling tenement.
She was declared a ward of the state and committed to Napsbury Hospital at St. Albans. She wrote letters claiming that she was trapped, a prisoner there - although her doctor said she was free to go whenever she liked, recalls Carlisle Moore, professor emeritus of English at the University of Oregon. "But it was obvious that she couldn't take care of herself."
Moore visited Opal in London a dozen times in the late '60s. Opal had a room at Napsbury, he says, and was quite calm. They'd go out to the garden, where Moore sometimes took pictures while they talked. "She had extraordinary powers of recollection and of creation," he says.
She was a very special person, he adds. "You can't help reading that diary without being enthralled. It's delightful, and yet - you know there's something missing. What's missing is reality."
Moore has no doubt Opal believed her claims. "I think she did it because she needed to. It was a hunger for an identity which she felt there was none of in the lumber camp," he says. "All in all, I look at her as a tragic figure, a mysterious figure."
Opal Whiteley died at Napsbury Hospital in 1992, at the age of 94 - insisting to the end that her name was Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orleans, and that her diary was authentic.
Editor Bede, the recognized authority on Opal until his death in 1967, says she could not have written the diary as a little girl. Instead, he wrote, she perpetrated a clever fraud, possibly in a bid for fame. Bede's commentary was published as "Fabulous Opal Whiteley" in 1956, and is once again in print.
Hoff says Bede's so-called facts don't check out - and offers proof in his own book. Opal, he says, was very likely schizophrenic. The disease let loose her creative talents very early - and just as powerfully shut them down. The work, he writes, "was part of a secret diary printed by a precocious, schizophrenic little girl who read and wrote with great intensity, and dreamed of angel parents."
When the diary first came out, Ellery Sedgwick wrote, "For those whom nature loves, the Story of Opal is an open book. They need no introduction to the journal of this Understanding Heart."
It's the book that matters, Hoff agrees, and it's the book that will outlast all debate as to its origin. "Few people in the past have understood Opal Whiteley," he writes. "But I believe that many in the future will understand her."
Steve McQuiddy is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Ore.