A Kansas Writer Explores The State's Motto Through The Eyes Of A Pioneer Woman

Feb 8, 2018

Kansas writer Thomas Fox Averill's newest novel is 'Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr.'
Credit Peggy Clark / Washburn University

Nell Johnson Doerr’s husband rolled her up in a carpet so she’d survive Quantrill’s 1863 raid on Lawrence. Lying alongside the limestone foundation of her house, she hears her husband’s murder but is powerless to help him.

Kansas writer Thomas Fox Averill’s entirely fictitious book, “Found Documents from the Life of Nell Johnson Doerr,” is rooted in the abolitionist movement, but the character of Nell begins to live and breathe while trapped in the carpet.Readers familiar with Averill’s work might recall that the protagonists of his novel “rode,” found a baby in a raided house near her dead parents. Nell Johnson Doerr is that baby.

In an interview with Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard, Averill said he’d always been curious about what happened to the baby Nell. From her inception in the 2011 novel, Nell's has been a story of rescue, discovery, and finding. Averill's journey of writing his newest novel has also included those elements.

For example, as the distraught, carpet-wrapped Nell rests her head on the rock floor and comforts herself with the old hymn “Rock of Ages,” the song’s line “let me hide myself in thee” sounds different to her under the circumstances.

“I hid in rock, my eyes locking on limestone," she thinks. "These shapes in the Rock of Ages had before now been hidden to my eyes,” she writes in a diary entry the following day.

It's fossils that she's noticing. And in the novel’s preface, which takes place more than a century later, an unnamed editor describes noticing Nell’s name on fossil labels during a trip to the University of Kansas’ Natural History Museum. The editor searches for more information on this mysterious pioneer scientist and soon discovers her valise in an old barn.

The valise is stuffed with documents.

The editor compiles this collection of lightly “edited” versions of Nell’s correspondence, diary entries, and drawings of specimens from 1825 through 1890.

Averill told Kaufmann he spent a lot of time in archives reading diaries and letters by women.

“I wrote a lot of this novel not on the computer but in long hand to try to imitate that slower way of contemplative writing,” he said.

And Averill’s use of archival fiction is so true to the age that much of the time it reads as nonfiction.

For instance, Nell describes hearing presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln address a crowd at a hotel in Leavenworth, Kansas, just days after John Brown’s execution.

After noting his famously gangly, disheveled appearance, Nell writes: “Still, when this orator trains his eyes upon an audience … including women, and opens his mouth to put forth his arguments in clear and simple language, he suddenly seems an elegant figure.”

Similarly, Averill’s rendering of a woman’s experience both in simply living and in attempting to insinuate herself into the male-only field of Victorian-era natural science, also rings true.

In a diary entry she writes of an unsettling dream. Nell lost two children just after their births, but she dreams that her breasts are swollen and tender as they were during her pregnancies. “I bent in pain. Milk leaked onto rock, liquid staining stone, then the dark dribbles turned white and hardened into fossil. When I reached to feel the new formations they disappeared and I awoke sobbing.”

The character also details her struggles to extract money from her bank account after her husband is dead. The banker finds doing business with her “distasteful” because he thinks she’s “trying to be a man” and “leaving behind the boundaries most women oblige themselves to.”

But times were hard for everyone, Averill reminded Kaufmann.

“It was a very difficult place for people to come to early on. The history of Kansas, in some ways, has been a history of difficulties. That’s why our state motto is 'to the stars through difficulties.'”

Besides, as the novel progresses, Nell climbs beyond the rigid gender dichotomy of her day and meets with success in her field. Averill deftly maintains the tone of the era and the balance of what a tenacious woman might realistically achieve at the end of the 19th century.

Kansas has always been a home to crusaders in science and politics, he told Kaufmann.

In writing about these early crusades through Nell’s experiences, Averill created an intersection of personal and public history, which is largely what lends authenticity to the work and makes it so hard to discern as purely fictional.

Averill taught at Washburn University for 37 years, often trying to impress upon students that Kansas history holds a lot for natives to be proud of. Even so, through writing about a specific woman, he said he was able to go deeper into that familiar history and see it with new eyes: Nell’s.

Listen to Gina Kaufmann's entire conversation with Thomas Fox Averill here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.