By Don Nelson
Everyone who spends any time here has a Methow story. Mrs. Hugh Fraser — Mary Crawford Fraser — told hers 100 years ago in a jaunty volume that is partly gossip, partly roman â clef, partly astute observation and entirely embedded in the valley’s still-emerging history of the early 20th century.
The book — a hefty but lively tome titled Seven Years on the Pacific Slope — was published in 1914 and mostly relegated to the remaindered dustbin of time after that.
Fraser’s enlightening work has been brought back to life — and print — thanks to the support of Winthrop’s Shafer Museum and the efforts of local editors Peter Donahue and Sheela McLean. Seven Years on the Pacific Slope was recently released in a somewhat abridged paperback version, enhanced with lots of pioneer-era photography of the Methow Valley.
About 100 copies have already arrived in the valley and are being quickly snapped up, but more will arrive by mid-December and the book will be available at Trail’s End Bookstore, through the Shafer Museum website and at other local retail outlets. The book retails for $19.95.
Donahue is the author of two Seattle-based historical novels, Madison House and Clara and Merritt. He also writes for Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History and teaches English at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak.
McLean most recently was editor of the online news site Methow Grist, but has also been a wilderness ranger, horse packer, and public affairs officer for both the U.S. Forest Service and NOAA Fisheries. Her sister, Kit McLean Cramer, is co-author (along with Karen West) of the acclaimed Bound for the Methow, a lavish coffee-table book that tells the valley’s history through words and photos.
Scalpel and hatchet
Donahue first became aware of Fraser’s book through a Grist article by McLean, and he subsequently wrote about it for Columbia magazine.Donahue and McLean discussed restoring the book to circulation, and were backed the Shafer Museum. The project took more than two years.
It was a daunting challenge. “It [Fraser’s book] was a slog to read,” Donahue said in an interview last week. Yet it was also a “phenomenal depiction of the valley,” Donahue said.
To reduce the slog factor, Donahue and McLean excised about one-fourth of the original book, being careful to maintain continuity and preserve Fraser’s voice. “We didn’t cut her prose. She’s a masterful writer,” Donahue said.
To get the book down to a manageable size, “we used a scalpel in some places, a hatchet in others,” Donahue said. “It’s much more readable.”
It’s also much more visual, with pioneer-era photography used to illustrate Fraser’s observations and anecdotes. West and Cramer helped find photos.
What makes Seven Years on the Pacific Slope particularly intriguing to McLean, a fourth-generation Methow Valley resident, is that her pioneer forebears play a prominent role in Fraser’s book — although they are thinly disguised as the Mackenzie clan. Throughout the book, Fraser refers to real-life characters by nicknames, abbreviations or fairly obvious approximations — Winthrop maven Guy Waring is “the Lord of the Manor;” the pioneer Filer family are called the Tilers; “Mr. H” is Samuel Hotchkiss.
Part of the fun for Donahue and McLean was trying to figure out who was who, to the extent that was possible. An addendum to the book provides identities they were able to discover. Another extensive addendum consists of explanatory notes and historical references to provide context and help the reader understand what Fraser is so entertainingly writing about. For much of that information, the editors credit Barry George of the Okanogan Historical Society.
Fraser was no mere diarist. She was an accomplished author before she arrived in the Methow Valley, the world-traveled widow of a British diplomat, and part of a distinguished family that included her father Thomas Crawford, a prominent American sculptor, and her brother Marion Crawford, a novelist. Fraser wrote voluminously after her husband’s death in 1894, eventually producing more than 30 fiction and nonfiction books.
Fraser arrived here with her son, Hugh C. Fraser (who is credited as co-author of the original book), in 1906. Hugh had been injured in the Boer War in Africa, and had been encouraged by Waring — a family acquaintance — to recuperate in the Methow. As the book’s introduction notes, “she [Mary Fraser] soon fit right in and before long was a fully accepted member of the community.”
McLean said her earlier-generation family members “didn’t like the book because it wasn’t flattering … but she was trying to portray what she saw humanely, accurately and interestingly … she reveals truths that have held up over time … she had ‘outside’ eyes and they were honest.”
“I’m grateful,” McLean added. “It’s given us a little window into the family history.”
McLean also spent a lot of time talking to what she calls “valley elders” who added their own background information and authentication to the book.
“We asked a lot of local people to read it and make observations,”
Despite the research that Donahue, McLean and George put into the book, there are still some unknowns. “There are other mysteries,” McLean said. “If readers can help solve a mystery, that would be fabulous.”