The Singing Creek Where The Willow Grows: The Rediscovered Diary of Opal Whiteley

Welcome to Kitty's Book Nook! Grab a cup of tea, a nanna rug for your knees and sit in your favorite easy chair, because we're talking books. For my first Book Nook post, I decided to go with one of my favorite books that hopefully most of you have never heard of. It's a real treat. But first let me tell you how I found it.

C and I went on a day trip up into the mountains, to a town called Katoomba. It's really beautiful up there, with lots of artists living amongst the gorgeous trees and mountains. I always take tourists up there when they come to Sydney. There are a lot of antique and curiosity shops and on this particular day, we visited Mr Pickwick's which is always top of the list. It's a huge 3 level store, with probably half dedicated to books, but also lots of knick-knacks, beautiful homewares and clothing as well. My collection of ceramic critters started in Mr Pickwick's, but that's a story for another time.

While I was browsing, C came across this book, all about Opal Whiteley, including her journal that she had written as a child living in an Oregon logging settlement around the turn of the 20th century. I didn't need convincing, and became the new owner of "The Singing Creek Where The Willow Grows"

Once I started reading, I was hooked. The first paragraph reads:
"Today the folks are gone away from the house we do live in. They are gone a little way away, to the ranch house where the grandpa does live. I sit on our steps, and I do print. I like it, this house we do live in, being at the edge of the near woods. So many little people do live in the near woods. I do have conversations with them. I found the near woods the first day I did go explores. That was the next day after we did come here.

At first the writing style might be a little jarring, but it is really easy to get around once you start reading. Opal wrote these diaries at the age of 6 or 7. It was first published in 1920 as "Opal Whiteley: Journal of an Understanding Heart", to critical acclaim. Almost immediately though, people started to discredit her authenticity, not believing a child could have written the journal. Opal believed that she was French royalty who had been adopted in Oregon after her 'real' father, Prince Henri D'Orléans died in 1901.

Opal claims she was adopted by a poor logging family, who changed her name from Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans to Opal Whiteley. "The Mamma" was physically abusive toward Opal and did not understand her fascination with the creatures and nature around her. Despite the controversy, Opal maintained her journal was authentic, unfortunately she never gained the success that would be expected of a 'child prodigy' and 'genius' and died alone in an asylum in London at the age of 94.

The particular edition of this book is the best one in my opinion, as it contains a foreword by Benjamin Hoff (and if you get the reprint, and afterward) detailing Opal's life after the diary was written, and explores the claims of fraud in some detail. There are several adaptations of the original work, as it had lapsed in copyright, some people thought it might be a good idea to re-write it with their own spin. I'd stay away from those, they lose the original charm and innocence of Opal's writing. If you are so inclined, you can read it online at the University of Oregon's website here. I prefer a real book myself. When I was in Portland, Oregon, there were several copies in Powell's books in the local history section. Otherwise it's probably best found online.

Things I love about this book: Opal is a real character, and her childlike insights into nature and the way the world around her functions are both touching and insightful. The way she goes on 'explores' through the woods and has a name for every little critter and special tree is incredible (I think my favorite names might be "'Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus' - A most dear velvety wood-rat" whom Opal carries about in her apron and "'Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael' - A grand fir tree with an understanding soul") This book let me into the world of a child who was fascinated by nature and had a gentle and caring heart for all the little critters on the farms and in the woods. It is a truly special book and I hope you will read it one day and enjoy it as much as I have.

If you have any questions or comments, please write below and I'll respond as soon as I can. I hope you all enjoyed the first edition of Kittys Book Nook. Next time I'll graduate to an adult writer :)