Saturday, June 27, 2009

Opal by Opal Whiteley

Opal was born just before 1900 and was raised by foster parents in Oregon lumber camps after her parents died. She kept a diary when she was five and six years old and this was first published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 1920. The edition that I read was adapted by Canadian poet Jane Boulton, who standardized some of the spelling and arranged the lines into free verse form on the pages.

Opal writes about her favourite animals, including Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, a lovely woodrat; Virgil, a toad; Brave Horatius, her dog; Peter Paul Rubens, the pig who follows her to school; and Felix Mendelssohn, the mouse that is always in her pocket. She tells her sorrows to Michael Raphael, a big tree. Sometimes she misses her dead parents and writes messages to them on leaves, saying prayers as she ties them to trees for the angels to find and carry on to heaven.

"The glad song in my heart is not bright today. I have thinks as how I can bring happiness to folks about. That is such a help when lonesome feels do come."

Opal saves any pennies she is given so that she can buy her foster mama the singing lessons she longs for. "And when I grow up I am going to buy her a whole rain barrel of singing lessons."

There is always work, even for very young girls. Opal "dishtowels all the dishes" and "some days there is cream to be shaked into butter. Some days I sweep the floor." She carries eggs to neighbours, feeds the chickens and washes baby clothes and stockings. "Stockings do have needs of many rubs. That makes them clean." She weeds the garden. "My back did get some tired feels but the onions were saying, 'We thank you for more room to grow.'"

"Then I thought I could go explores, but the mama called me to scour the pots and pans. That is something I do not like to do at all. So all the time I'm scouring I keep saying the lovely verses. That helps so much. And by and by the pots and pans are clean."

Opal loves exploring the natural world. "When I grow up I am going to write a book about a raindrop's journey." Of snakes, she says, "Their dresses fit them tight. They can't fluff out their clothes like birds can, but snakes are quick people."

"I lay my ear close to the ground where the grasses grew close together. I did listen. There were voices from out the earth and the things of their saying were the gladness of growing. And there was music. And in the music there was sky-twinkles and earth-twinkles. All the grasses growing there did feel glad feels from the tips of their green arms to their toe roots in the ground."

"One drinks in so much inspiration with one's toes in a willow creek." I've made a note to try that sometime.

This quirky and charming diary is one of my favourites. Suitable for Grade 5 through adult.

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