I bought a booklet of postcards while in Raleigh, North Carolina. (By the way, if you ever get to Raleigh and you love books, visit the Quail Ridge Bookstore — it’s terrific. Folks are nice, too.) The postcards are all of women who dared to make changes. One of the black and white photos is of Annie Oakley. The small blurb on the back sent me off to research Annie on the internet. I knew a little. I wouldn’t be using the information in The True Life Adventures of my Irene novel, yet I had an interest, a curiosity, and followed it.
What I found was that Annie Oakley was thirty-nine in 1899, the year Irene Parilee Johns was born. Annie died at age 66 or thereabouts; Irene, the fictional heroine of The True Life Adventures of Irene in White Tights, didn’t live half so many years. Yet, the two women, Annie and Irene, shared a stage in “time.”
Imagination tells me, they shared a physical stage as well, perhaps at the Hippodrome in New York City. Or perhaps, during Irene’s “horse-diving” days, both Irene and Annie toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wildwest Show. This last seems highly doubtful – but it’s grand to imagine these two women who dared to do what they did, who stepped outside the tiny confines of womanhood back then into worlds where they brought home the bread.
Irene was born in Penn and Annie in Ohio. Irene’s fictional mother was Methodist and Annie’s Quaker. Both mothers did the best they could.
Annie’s mother, a widow three times over, had it rough with eight children (Annie was the sixth) from her first husband, Jacob, then a ninth child with her second husband, Joseph. When he died, she married a third time and was widowed again.
Irene’s mother, Olive, married only once. His name was Joseph, too, and Joseph had “prospects.” However, after nine children (Irene was the seventh), Olive left, not her family, but Joseph, who, to Olive’s mind, squandered his “prospects” on dreaming. She took eight of her children with her – the oldest daughter having already wed and moved on.
Both Annie’s father and Irene’s died as a result of, or during, freezing weather – Jacob from pneumonia after overexposure; and Joseph Johns due to a mishap while cutting block ice from the pond.
Nine year old Annie, to provide for her family did a stint at the county poor farm, followed by harsh labor with a local family. When she returned to her family, Annie hunted game in the surrounding area and sold her take to townsfolk. She was 13 or 14 by then.
Irene at fourteen was touring with an aquatic Vaudeville act – Dottie Clay’s Mermaids – and sending home money to help pay the mortgage on a brownstone in Brooklyn where her mother had settled after leaving the Pennsylvania farm.
Neither girl had much by way of schooling; what they learned, they learned along the way. Irene, as a younger girl, had been too hard-headed to apply herself. Annie, it would seem, never really had the chance to attend regular school in her youth. Still, monies earned by Annie for the game she sold eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm. And Irene, until her death, contributed to the safe-keeping of her mother’s Brooklyn home.
The parallels go on, at least in my mind. The Irene Johns of my novel is inspired by Irene Lowe, a woman who dared to climb into a cannon and be shot, as a human cannonball, out over the tiered stands of crowds at the Atlantic City Steel Pier back in the 1930’s. Irene was the “bullet” so to speak, while Annie fired bullets from a rifle. Both women were show-stoppers. Both women did what they did to bring home the bread. Both women dared. One of them lived twice the span of years as the other. You might say one woman’s show was all skill, the other’s was pure folly. I like to think Irene did what she felt was required. Women who dare often do.