Opal Whiteley

In 1948, 51-year-old Opal Whiteley was found in a dead-end London street half starved. In her tiny basement apartment, authorities found crate after crate of books stacked upon themselves covering every possible nook and cranny of space. It is estimated that the collection contained a total of ten to fifteen thousand books. Each and every one of the tomes found in Ms. Whiteley’s apartment contained underlining and copious notes in her handwriting. Later, it was discovered that Ms. Whiteley was working on a book of her own at the time and that she’d spent every dime she could get her hands on in obtaining the research material for it.

In truth, Opal Whiteley of the logging/gold mining town of Cottage Grove Oregon was no stranger to the publishing world. In 1920, The Atlantic Monthly serialized a book she wrote, The Story of Opal, a diary originally written in crayon on scraps of paper when she was approximately 6 and 7 years old. The serialization was soon published as a book and titled, The Story of Opal, The Journal of An Understanding Heart. Because Opal had a photographic memory, her reading and writing abilities were quite advanced and this childhood diary was lauded by the public with fervor as they read of her friendships with animals, her thousands of collected and labeled plants and insects, and her many hi-jinx which kept her mother and grandmother always watchful and her rear-end well paddled. The book became a national bestseller and in Oregon it was what everyone was talking about, gushing with pride and excitement over their hometown celebrity.

The validity of the journal came into question when it became apparent that the diary contained clues within it suggesting Opal was actually the daughter of a French Prince, Henri D’Orleans, and was adopted by the Whiteley’s when she was only a toddler. Opal had no birth certificate, which was not uncommon in a time when home births were still so frequent, and though the assertion of having a French Prince as a father was quite fanciful, without a birth certificate to prove otherwise, people were simply left to draw conclusions of their own.

Before long the public began to accuse Opal of writing the diary as an adult, not as a child, which became quite a scandal; all the drama prompting Opal to go first to LA to try to become a movie star. Having no success there, she went to England where she wrote for a travel magazine, then she was off to India where she wrote tirelessly of the Palace and the Maharana in Udaipur under the name of Princess Francoise Marie De Bourbon-Orleans.

In his entire career of diligence and research, Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was never able to disprove Whiteley’s claims of her childhood adventures as portrayed in THE STORY OF OPAL.

The girl in The Story of Opal, is a trusting, friendly, inquisitive spirit who talks with animals, the wind, the trees, and experiments with botany and animal care all on her own while making a record of it in an engaging, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous manner. Those who remember Opal as a girl and young woman would later admit she was infinitely gifted with teaching others about nature and God. Perhaps to know the real Opal was to know the truth about the authenticity of the diary; apparently she truly was the precocious child she appears to be in the journal and was genuinely gifted with animals. Even as young as 13 years old, Whiteley was known to teach in the arboreal cathedral around her home town and while traveling all over Oregon, shining like a star as she converted people to Christianity and taught tirelessly about the natural world.

Her idiosyncrasies made her out to be a strange child, so whether she was gifted or not, a genius or not, she was noticeably different. In grade school, she brought Felix Mendelssohn, her pet mouse, to school with her, carrying him in her apron or the pocket sewn onto her underskirt, and let him relax in her desk as she ciphered. Yes, she was different. When, as an adult, the authorities found her on the streets of London without a penny to her name, she was admitted to the mental institution where it was found that she suffered from what the authorities later termed Schizophrenia.

Imagine. All those books Opal Whiteley studied, underlined, made notations in, cataloged. 10-15 thousand books – she spent every bit of money she ever could scrounge up on books. Imagine that. Every penny on research material for the book she was writing. I can look all around my house right now and see bookcases in every room literally bulging with books; spine out, face out, stacked, crammed in crevices. I have piles of books on tables in any number of rooms, all totaling a measly 2,000 books or so, tops. I have spent many saved-up dollars on my collected biblios, but I have never spent my last dime on books over bread and I have never marked in any single book save the occasional textbook back in my school days. At this point, I can hardly call myself a writer compared to the dedication demonstrated by Opal Whiteley. All the love she had for the natural world, all the desire she had for publication; as much obsession as a teenage boy might have for the girl next door as she researched and cataloged, yet she was collapsed with hunger on a dead end street in London. Her collected tomes have since been lost to all the corners of London and no one knows anything about any of her later writings. The “French Princess” from Cottage Grove spent the last forty plus years of her life in a London Mental Health institution, where she died in 1992 at the age of 94.

It is fortunate, then, to find someone who cared so much as to trace Ms. Whiteley’s footsteps through her childhood forays in wood and pasture. Benjamin Hoff, best know for writing The Tao of Pooh and The De of Piglet, did this in 1988 with the publication of The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, an investigative biography of Opal Whiteley and an entertaining, amusing, and heartwarming autobiographical rendering of her childhood in Oregon. Within her story is a long list of childhood friends from dogs to sheep to turkeys, including William Shakespeare, an old gray horse, Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus a wood rat, Brave Horatius, the German Shepherd, and many, many more. Opal’s story is one of adventure every day be it preventing the family ham from being stolen by a passerby or brown leaves that tell her fanciful stories of the day they were born, there is no story quite like Opal Whiteley’s.

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