Sharon Porter Moxley, now of Santa Rosa, has written (with help from Susan Dregey) a wonderful book about growing up in the Whitethorn of the 1940s and ‘50s. It’s the kind of “sleeper” book that at first seems like a quaint little set of historical anecdotes, but the more you read, and the more you reflect on it, the more you realize there’s a lot more to it than local color. Among the Silent Giants: A Young Girl’s True Adventures is as much the story of a girl’s coming of age as it is a tale of mid-century Humboldt logging-camp life.
In the very first few pages, seven-year-old Sharon is introduced by her mother, Ruby, to a strange new man who is now her stepfather. “I want you to meet Al Sharpe. He lives in Whitethorn… I’ve a surprise for you.” Ruby had married him the day before. But since Al, owner of the Whitethorn Lumber Co., needs to be in Thorn, and there is no house yet available there to fit the whole family, Ruby leaves young Sharon with her Aunt Maude in Bull Creek. Maude seems as unlikely as her sister to do what needs to be done in the backwoods to feed a family, so Sharon takes her first steps to adulthood: she catches a young rooster and whacks its head off with the heavy axe, thus providing herself and her guardian a longed-for fried chicken dinner. Then she goes to her room and packs away all the teddy bears she associates with helpless childhood.
With all the boisterous masculinity associated with the tough life of loggers, it seems especially poignant that a young girl should have to act as both the adult and the man of the family, but it often comes to that amidst the sink-or-swim childrearing philosophy of Sharon’s world. She becomes, largely through circumstance, a very tough little girl; however, her bravery and willingness to go up against even the big boys in her community are balanced by her innate thoughtfulness and compassion. Far from growing up to be a desensitized brute, in fact, Sharon Porter Moxley became a school psychologist (besides developing her love of horses, kindled on her beloved Stardust and others, into a lifelong passion for horse breeding, training, and racing). Her writing has a mysterious quality of seeming to come directly from the mind of a pre-teen girl; adult commentary rarely intrudes. Still, the young girl’s voice varies from that of a practical jokester and stubborn survivor to a doubting brooder. Sharon lived the life, but kept her secret thoughts, many of which are now ours to contemplate.
Although Among the Silent Giants is set mainly in Whitethorn, there are intriguing descriptions of people and places in Eureka, Arcata, and Bull Creek. One of my favorite passages reveals a rare natural wonder near the mouth of the Mad River that she sees while on an early-morning fishing trip with her natural father, George Porter. Throughout the book, many details jarred my own memories of growing up in Maine when much of that state’s woodsy lifestyle was also based on logging; the catalog of smells alone—endless cigarette and pipe smoke, boozy breath, sawdust, teepee burner and pulp mill emissions, kerosene lamps and stoves, mildewy cold rooms—is enough to evoke the material essence of life in any American logging town from New England to the north woods of Michigan to the Pacific Northwest. However, the scale of the Coast Redwoods, and the nearly impenetrable denseness of our lush forests, may have made for an even tougher breed of lumberjack here than around Paul Bunyan’s original stomping grounds.
The book is illustrated with enough charming photographs, and enough details of the Doer and Porter family connections, that you can match the names with the faces and feel that you are getting to know the family– for instance, Grandma Blanche Doers, a tall, regal, yet often “blue” lady who raised three beautiful women and one tough logger, Sharon’s Uncle Allan. The reading experience is like entering a completely furnished world; the only problem is that the book ends. I would like to have kept on exploring those trails, watching the mysteriously alcohol-obsessed adults, riding those horses, and learning about the different walks of life even in a tiny town like Whitethorn, for much longer. (At 200 pages, it is not, however, a meager volume.)
I believe this book holds a wide appeal, and that I needn’t add “If you like local history,” or “If you are fond of childhood reminiscences.” However, if you are reading this blog, chances are you will be especially likely to appreciate it.
You can buy the book locally at about any local bookstore, or find it online at amazon.com.
Also, Sharon has a Facebook page for her book.
As a postscript, i want to include an email i received from Sharon when i wrote to congratulate her on the publication of her memoirs:
“I went to Whitethorn a couple of weeks ago and was floored to find it has vanished. They do have the green and white highway sign nailed to a stump but the buildings, with the exception of the skeletons of the grocery store and the post office, are almost completely gone. The school is still there and looks like it is alive and well but it must serve people from out in the mountains.
“I had a hard time finding where my house used to be. I only discovered where it was by locating a nearby creek that ran by our yard. My step-father’s mill (Whitethorn Lumber Company) was also gone, along with the church, the bar and my neighbors’ houses.
“I must admit I came more in touch with my own mortality that day. If my childhood town could die, my extinction seemed closer.
“On a good note the redwoods, tan oak and fir trees were thriving. They are back. Gone are the old slashings of my youth. Nature has replenished itself. It is beautiful.”