What more worthy aspiration could writers have than to hope their stories will sound fresh and new more than sixty years after they were written? Such is the case with Mrs. Mike, the true-to-life story of Boston-born Katharine Mary O’Malley. In 1907, when she was only sixteen, she was sent to live with her uncle on his ranch north of Calgary to recover from pleurisy. Shortly after her arrival, she met Sergeant Mike Flannigan, a red-coasted Mountie and they were soon married.
The rest of the book details the story of the first few years of their marriage as they faced the rigors of frontier life in the northern reaches of western Canada. She survives ferocious fire, virulent epidemics, mammoth mosquitoes, brutal winters, and tensions between whites and natives, along with personal tragedy and triumph.
This book is written in first person, in the style of a memoir, but the authors of record are Nancy and Benedict Freedman. The Freedmans met Kathy Flannagan in California where she moved shortly after Mike’s death in 1933. They were so touched and inspired by the tales she told that they immediately began to turn her story into this fictionalized account of the “true” story. The first printing hit the shelves in 1947.
I discovered the book while sorting through a pile of discards set aside for donation to the annual library booksale. It looked perfect for reading while recovering from a nasty cold. I enjoy reading novels from the early 1900s because of their generally quaint and simplistic plots and language.
To my delight, it quickly became apparent that this book is an exception. The plot is anything but simplistic, filled with spectacular scenes. The writing is masterful, with crisply defined characters, dynamic dialogue and richly sensual description. It sounds as fresh and current as if it had been written in 2002, the most recent year it was republished. No wonder it has sold millions of copies and been continuously in print all these years.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from this enduring tale is that great writing is timeless. Whether you aspire to international prominence as a writer, or merely want to increase the chances that your family will keep copies of your life story around for a few generations, honing your structure, scene writing, character development, description, dialogue and wordcrafting skills is a great investment of effort.
By the way, if you want to read more about the history of this novel, its power to change lives, and the people who wrote it, check out this article in O, the Oprah Magazine.
Write now: read a novel or memoir that’s at least 60 years old and compare writing styles from then to now. What has changed? What sounds the same? How might you improve the book?