A novel by George Byron Wright
“Reading about the gruesome death of someone you knew was like accidentally seeing your mother naked; it was too private, but you couldn’t take it back.”
In January 1948, nine-year-old Philip Wade and his little brother David, move to the small Eastern Oregon town of Baker City where their father, Kenneth Wade, is about to begin his career as a mortician. In the spring, Philip’s father hires Jack O’Brien, a local recluse, to help him put on a new roof on their house.
Three weeks later, a local schoolteacher is found beaten to death and Jack O’Brien is accused of her murder. Kenneth Wade is the only person who advocates on O’Brien’s behalf—fully believing the man to be innocent. Philip is a spellbound spectator and narrator of his father’s consuming struggle to save a man he barely knows. Conversely he witnesses his mother, Margaret Wade, demonstrate a quiet determination to keep the specter of violence from distorting the lives of her sons.
Twisted into the father’s fixation to wrest Jack O’Brien from custody, is the relentless memory of a boyhood friend who, when wrongly accused of a killing, hung himself in his jail cell. This long ago horror is key to Kenneth Wade’s motivation—he is caught up in the terrible present because of a past that will not let him go.
Behind the Story
I lived in Baker City in 1948 when I was nine. My father was indeed a mortician and began his career as an embalmer there. The memories of that place have remained fresh, as is often the case when a child is thrust into a new place. In 1996, I returned to Baker City and began the research that would uncover the event inspiring this novel. When scanning miles of newspaper microfilm, I discovered a tragedy that had occurred while I had played stick horse back then. A woman by the name of Catherine Elizabeth Douglass, 66, was bludgeoned to death in March of 1948 on a cold country road at the edge of town. For over a month, the headlines raged in the Democrat-Herald and Record-Courier newspapers but the assailant was never caught.
I stood before her grave in the cemetery. It was a sad reminder of how a barbarous event can shock us and then fade away. So I owe Mrs. Douglass and her memory a debt for inspiring this novel and quietly acknowledge that she is not forgotten.
Author’s Note: The town was called Baker City from 1866 to 1911, when it was changed to simply Baker to sound more cosmopolitan. It was renamed Baker City in 1989. Even though the novel is set in 1948, I have chosen to use the name Baker City for purposes of currency and literary license.
Excerpt from Chapter One
As a boy, I knew nothing of the dark memory that my father had carried since his youth like some parasite. At least I didn’t for a long time. Then in 1947, shortly after my eighth birthday, my father decided to become a mortician. One year later, he embalmed his first dead body for pay—but not before he had uprooted our family and orchestrated our displacement. Soon afterward there was a killing in this new place we had come to, and the circumstances of that horror unleashed something in my father, turning it loose on him and on us. Did he do a noble thing? I still wonder, and that is what compels me to put it all down here.
In any event, we were going to live someplace else. I didn’t know that people did that. Being eight, I assumed that where you were, was where you would be, period. But sure enough, in the chill of January in 1948 we vacated the big house on Twelfth Street, left my birthplace, The Dalles, Oregon, on the banks of the mighty Columbia, and rode the Union Pacific Streamliner to a place called Baker City. My father, Kenneth Longworth Wade, former longshoreman and World War II veteran, was about to become a funeral director and embalmer.
Deep into the night, the train powered down, coasted into Baker City, and ground to a stop, the diesels surging impatiently. It was so black out that my little brother David and I, groggy from a fitful slumber, saw only our own reflections in the dark glass of the coach window. We were the only passengers to get off; left standing beneath a dim station light as the train growled away and vanished through a black curtain. The depot was locked. Nothing moved I could hear the sound of my own breathing in the cold air. I guessed that we weren’t expected. Felt like that. The only sound was the squeak of the phone booth accordion door. My father stood under the dome light, and thumbed at the directory that hung from a chain, and plugged a nickel into the slot. Shortly an old Chevrolet lumbered up. It had “Eight-0 Taxi” painted in white letters on its doors. Come to find out, all of the taxis in Baker City were named with a number: the “Eight-0”, the “One Twenty-One”, and the “Thirteen” taxis. The driver nodded when my father told him where we wanted to go, wrestled our luggage into the trunk, and without smile or comment drove us through the dark to 1440 Elm Street. The moving van was waiting for us there with its slumbering driver, an unpleasant man who stumbled from the truck’s cab and stood scowling and knuckling his eyes.
The house, so memorable now, was merely a dark outline that night—black on blacker, an unfamiliar silhouette squatting in the cold with several inches of clotted snow scattered around it. That night, David and I took to the house as we found her because without her we were homeless.
My mother stood guard while my father and the sullen van driver completed our migration, grunting and hefting and swaying under boxes and beds, and the prized cedar chest and the revered piano. In the wee hours we fell into our familiar beds, smelled our own pillows, and slept quick and hard. My last thought before sleep came was Where am I?
Baker City 1948