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Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2003

    A Flawed Book About a Flawed Gem

    People interested in the writer Opal Whiteley have long waited for an objective biography. It was hoped that K.K. Beck, author of over a dozen pulp fiction mysteries, would be able to be a literary detective sorting out fact from fiction. However, Beck approaches her story more like a prosecuting attorney than a serious researcher. At times, it seems like she is more out to convict, rather than explain the mysterious Opal Whiteley. She becomes like a guilty baddie in one of Beck's novels. What we read is page after page of much the same thing; Opal was an ambitious, lying, crazy child who hated housework - and she died an ambitious, lying, crazy old woman who hated housework. Case closed. Beck seems to dismiss or ignore almost any information favorable to Opal while magnifying all of her flaws. That is our loss, because this could have been a really good book by a woman who is a fine mystery writer. Even with its flaws, there is a lot of new information here. Beck gives the most in-depth account yet of Opal¿s years in Boston, Washington DC and India. Beck is at her best when describing the cloud of people great and small who moved in and out of Opal¿s life. There are some sensationalized accounts of several of Opal¿s love affairs. The author did a lot of legwork and traveled to England to research information in the University of London archives. Some of Beck¿s new charges against Opal are so sensational that they should require solid evidence before being fully accepted. There is no index, no table of contents and Beck almost never cites complete references or dates, which makes it difficult to check her facts. It is hard to feel confident of Beck¿s accuracy and documentation. Beck gets some well-known facts completely wrong. For example, she says on page thirteen that Opal¿s first school was in the logging town of Wendling. Beck writes about Opal¿s rapid progress in the school and her teacher, Mrs. Daugherty. It is a good story about her early school years ¿ except it happened in Walden, not Wendling, which is over thirty miles away and a year later in Opal's life. One of Katherine Beck¿s main contentions is that Opal did not start writing a diary until she was about twelve years or thirteen years old. She says that ¿nobody ever saw a diary¿ written on scraps of paper and printed with crayons, that every person only saw a diary on lined notebook paper and written in cursive (p.260). This is not quite accurate. Opal Whiteley¿s biggest critic, Cottage Grove Sentinel newspaperman Elbert Bede, said in an October 12, 1933 Sentinel article that he has learned of two people, a man and a woman, who had seen this diary. He writes that it is ¿beyond being disputed¿ and that he has ¿the most implicit confidence¿ in the people who say they saw Opal¿s childhood diary. He also published these articles in the Portland Oregonian. Beck writes about these 1933 articles, but does not mention what he says about her childhood diary. One point that Beck and I agree on is that Opal showed her Oregon family in a very bad light. They were much better educated than what the legend says. Truth be told, I myself might have wanted to strangle Opal if I had been one of her family members. Her diary is full of family secrets; about children born out of wedlock, the family making wine when Oregon was dry, gambling, and much other gossip.. Opal critic Elbert Bede, in his private papers says he has ¿often wondered¿ if Opal was the child of someone else in the family. Most children at some point growing up wonder if they are adopted. To have your mother tell you that you were would override all other facts or other people¿s statements to you. Opal got her beliefs that she was not really a Whiteley directly from her mother, who also had emotional and physical health problems. Certainly she is one of the most misunderstood, tragic mothers in literature. Katherine Beck calls me ¿the world¿s first paid professional Opalit

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