Carol Ryrie Brink wrote this book long after she had moved away from Moscow. She based the story on the life of her grandfather, William W. Watkins, M.D. (linked to a short bio). Watkins was the town of Moscow's chief doctor, a formidable figure and a progressive thinker. It was actually Dr. Watkins who championed the cause of creating an institution for higher learning in the town of Moscow. His work and effort helped win the town the University of Idaho. He also purchased the land for the town's gravesite in which he is now buried. Dr. Watkins was a successful, head strong fellow with a personality that liked to get things done. People either loved him or hated him; he tended to have a polarizing effect. (Note: I was under the impression for some reason that Brink is also buried in this cemetery and spent quite a bit of time looking for her gravesite last time we were in town. However I was mistaken. She was cremated in California and her ashes were scattered in an undisclosed location. It is only her ancestors/family who are buried in Moscow.)
When Brink published Buffalo Coat, she felt herself so removed from Moscow that she didn't think anyone would even remember her or make the connection that this book was about her grandfather's life. She underestimated what good memories people in small towns are apt to have; it was quickly and easily assumed that Brink was speaking of her family in Moscow. (Why she thought that this would remain a mystery to people is a small wonder. Granted, she renames the town "Opportunity" for the sake of the book but then she specifically listed the actual names of towns surrounding Moscow, such as Orofino.) In a follow-up edition of the book Brink explains:
"As a child in Moscow I grew up hearing all of the town histories. They interested me as much as the novels that I read so avidly in the old Carnegie library. One of those true stories was particularly close to me as it concerned my grandfather, Dr. William Woodbury Watkins, who came to Moscow in 1887 and was killed there on August 4, 1901.
. . .
I first wrote a completely true story, using my grandfather's office on Second Street just off of Main as the link that bound the various stories together."
Her Author's Note is four pages long so I'm not going to type it up but those few sentences rather set the stage adequately. She decided to merge fact and fiction instead of writing a strictly true account. However the main fictionalized components of the story were timelines of when various of her characters lived in Moscow. She also included a romance which did not likely exist at all. Otherwise, reading this book is a good way to catch the flavor of the history of this small, seemingly insignificant town.
Brink clearly thought little of her grandfather's personality. Or, at least, it is hard to feel the love for him in this book. She paints a picture of a brilliant man who knows he is brilliant and lords that over other people. Her favorite character in this book is clearly Alice Ledbrooke (a.k.a., Caroline Woodhouse Watkins), her grandmother. Brink was raised by her grandmother whom she clearly adored. She writes of her in the Author's Note:
"Alice Ledbrook was one of the plainest - ugliest is an ugly word - let's say one of the least pretty women I have ever seen, but she was one of the delights of my childhood."
The story is introduced with so much history that it's hard to be surprised by what happens in the end so I don't necessarily feel that I'm offering spoilers by describing the book to you. Even if you know how the story ends, there is some delight in the way that Brink brought characters to life and weaved them all together so that each had an effect on the other in some form or fashion. One of the storylines in this book follows Dr. Hawkins (aka Watkins) as he doctors the people, makes decisions for the town and toots the glories of opportunity for expansion in the west. The other storyline follows young Jenny Walden, the beautiful and extremely intelligent daughter of the Methodist minister in town. Following these two characters hits on two rather sensational stories of the time: the murder of the doctor and the double-suicide of Jenny Walden and her already married lover. (You can read the real story of Winifred Booth and the double suicide here. It really is quite fantastical and bizarre. And rather morbidly fascinating.)
I trust that you can see that if these are the two main storylines, Buffalo Coat makes for a fairly depressing read. However, if you are as interested in history as I am, it also makes for a fascinating read. It's not one that I'd likely go around recommending to others but it's not totally worth avoiding either. I think one of the reasons which I feel so drawn to hunt down the history of particular areas and people is that America really doesn't have much of a history, globally speaking. As I've mentioned, our family is currently planning a trip to England and history just abounds over there. Every time you turn around you are met with an opportunity to learn about some fascinating place, person or event. Out west in America we mostly have tree rings to count and not a whole lot else (unless you count Lewis and Clark which is really exciting but exploring anything about them mostly just involves topography. We haven't built a ton of things in their honor, although we have marked their trail). When we travel about in country I have a really hard time finding things for the family to do out here in the Northwest because we just haven't taken the time to make notes, remember stories and engage with the past. I'm not totally sure why that is but it is. When I find that there is a story, I feel very much inclined to track it down and raise monuments in its honor or something! I think knowing your history is important and making the true and accurate facts accessible to children today extremely important.
There are a lot of parallels between All Over Town and Buffalo Coat. As I was reading them both simultaneously (one to my children and one by myself), I had to remind myself which book I was currently immersed in because the facts do overlap. This made reading them both at the same time rather curiously fun. I don't know that anyone else out there will want to read these books but I know that, ultimately, I'm glad that I did.
To see pictures of the real Dr. and Mrs. William Watkins and a picture of Caroline's hope chest, see this article by the Latah County Historical Society.
Other posts of interest: