Excerpt – Thieves of Summer, by Linda Sillitoe
This is a book my mother, Linda Sillitoe, almost didn’t live to finish writing. She began it in early 2009. Despite serious and debilitating illnesses, she completed and submitted the manuscript to Signature Books just weeks before her death in April 2010. In this one story, she combined all the phases of her thirty-five-year career: poetry, fiction, true crime, and history.
As she says in the prologue, it is a different story than the one she had expected to write. In her red unlined journal, she sketched out the idea for a novel that would span several generations of one family. She didn’t usually talk about projects during their conceptual stage but told me one night at dinner, “I think it’s actually going to take place over just one summer.”
Mom grew up the daughter of a police officer who eventually left the force to become a salesman, a small-business owner with my grandmother, and then a locksmith. Mom told me that while he was still a cop, he would come home in uniform and toss his cap on the table, then run his fingers through his dark curls. Grandpa’s once-thick hair is hard for my generation to imagine, but there are photographs to prove it. If he was in a good mood, he might talk about his day at work, usually tales of crooks who had been tripped up by their own foolishness.
In reality, most cases ended in tragedy, so Grandpa kept the details to himself, the exception being when an investigation became such big news that everyone heard about it. One such case, involving the murder of a young woman, Grandpa solved—not with a gun or a car chase, but by asking the right questions. The second case was the disappearance of a little boy. He was there one moment and gone the next. Without witnesses or an evidence trail, the police couldn’t even be sure that he had been kidnapped: he might have just wandered off. But it was all the adults talked about, always in hushed tones so the children wouldn’t overhear. This is how, at a very early age, my mother first experienced the irresistible pull of a mystery. While her parents reiterated the usual warnings—don’t leave the yard without permission, don’t talk to strangers, and don’t go into their cars or houses—my mother responded with questions of her own: How could a child vanish? Who would take him? Why?
When no one offered explanations, her curiosity became even more inflamed. While she was lying awake in bed or roller skating on the front porch, she turned the facts over in her mind to see if she could figure out how the pieces fit together. She was an avid newspaper reader, who checked both morning and evening editions for updates on the case. Once she thought she might finally learn something useful when, during a visit from her Aunt Fern, she overheard Fern ask her brother-in-law, “Bob, what do you think happened to that little boy?” Grandpa’s reply was too soft for my mother to hear, but it made Fern gasp and recoil.
The boy was never found and the case was left unsolved. My mother grew up and became a poet and fiction writer. At the 1979 International Women’s Year meetings in Salt Lake City, amid debate on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, she asked the right questions and landed an unexpected career as a journalist. Later that profession changed when she left her job at the newspaper to co-author a true-crime book, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders.
Occasionally she was reminded of the first mystery of her childhood—the boy who had vanished. She meant to ask her father about it, but their conversations usually ended up taking place at family gatherings where a new generation of children was poised to overhear. She waited too long. When Grandpa suddenly died, she realized she would have to solve the case in a fictional way, based on her intuition and experience as a journalist.
Mysteries weren’t the only thing that fascinated my mother at a young age. She loved elephants so much that for her fifth birthday, she told me, she asked for one as a pet. She said her father responded that she could have one if she agreed to clean up after it. Then he gave her an idea of how much shoveling that would entail, saying she would have to pay for its food as well. Since she already faced the weekly dilemma of whether to spend her ten-cent allowance on either paper dolls or drawing paper—but not both—she had to accept the fact that feeding a multi-ton pet would be beyond her means.
Her fascination with elephants never waned, however. As the animals themselves do, her interest grew unfettered so that by the time I was an adult, she had a small library of books on elephants. I borrowed one and found myself just as enthralled. Elephants are extraordinary, magical creatures. Their trunks are so powerful that they can topple a tree with a single motion; with that same trunk, they can delicately lift a newborn calf to its feet and guide its first steps. In a stampede, elephants are an earth-shaking blunder, but when they choose to they can move with silence and grace. They are comical and wise, intuitive and sly, and no, they never forget.
Setting this book in the Liberty Park neighborhood where Mom grew up meant she could include the park’s most famous resident, the very-real elephant called Princess Alice. This meant that the novel would have to take place earlier than the 1950s of my mother’s childhood. As she began her research, she settled on the year 1938. Soon she found a surprisingly close source when she discovered that her friend of thirty years, Emma Lou Thayne, had spent summers exercising horses in Liberty Park. Emma Lou remembered Princess Alice well. While she never actually chased down the elephant, Mom couldn’t resist the image of her friend doing just that. In spite of her assertion that the story’s characters are all fictional, I can assure you that Nora is, in fact, Emma Lou Thayne. To those who know her, Emma Lou’s adventurous and optimistic spirit is as recognizable as her vocal cadence.
The other characters are mostly fictional, with some exceptions. Mom thought she could disguise her father by making him blond and giving him a Philadelphia childhood, but it is easy to see Grandpa in Evan. Similarly, Evan’s wife, Rose, shares my grandmother’s skill as a seamstress, her nurturing spirit, and her role as the peacemaker in the family. Mom gave Rose a simpler worldview than Grandma possessed, but I can tell who it is. I also see my Aunt Susan in Annabel, especially Annabel’s desire for structure and certainty. Susan and my mom were born just fifteen months apart and were almost like twins in the way they shared memories their younger siblings did not have. While my mother was writing this story, Susan was battling bone cancer and died just a few months before my mother’s death.
To me, there are two more parallels: Carolee’s obsession with newspapers, dictionaries, and careful analysis of the facts of the case reveals one side of my mother’s personality, while Bethany’s characteristics as a dreamer, elephant lover, and occasional rebel represent another.
It was a bittersweet experience for me to work with the publisher through the final editing. I find that my mother is most present for me when I’m reading her writing, but even so, it was daunting deciding which sections needed some clarification and which should be left alone. In any changes we made, I relied heavily on conversations with my mother about writing and editing. I am confident she would approve of this final draft, also that she would be flattered by the complementary visual aspects, including the cover, the running heads, the key icon between scenes, and the section dividers.
This is my mother’s last story. I think it is appropriate that it blends her poetic voice, her insight into people, her refusal to look away from the shadows in life, and her belief in ordinary magic—as well as her incredible sense of humor. For all those reasons and more, I am happy to share it with you.
Ogden, Utah, May 2014.
Princess Alice had no intention of relocating, and like most elephants, she meant to have her own way.
I knew nothing of this when I was a child, dwelling in one home or another near Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. Named after Alice Roosevelt, the feisty and admired daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, the princess munched on green hay all day under tall shady trees, entertaining her visitors and occasionally outraging her neighbors for over two decades.
A few years before Princess Alice was born in India (most likely, but unknown), Salt Lake City purchased Liberty Park from colonizer Brigham Young, the planter of its cottonwood and mulberry trees. By the turn of the twentieth century, Young had died, polygamy had dwindled, and the legislature of Utah Territory had convinced Congress to vote for statehood. Salt Lake City rushed into the new century with electric streetlights all ablaze and set about filling Liberty Park with attractions, including a zoo. Naturally, a zoo needed an elephant, so the search was on.
The problem was that even in 1916 elephants were expensive. Before my parents were born, schoolchildren throughout the city donated pennies and nickels to purchase the elephant for $3,250 from the Sells-Floto Show Company, a circus that later joined the Ringling Brothers empire. For over two decades, Princess Alice not only reigned over Liberty Park but also occasionally strolled through the nearby developing neighborhoods, prompting the construction of a more secure zoo above the valley.
But Princess Alice preferred not to relocate. Eventually, she did just that, but it was not her choice.
My father served in the army reserves during the Korean War. Afterward, my parents purchased a red brick cottage near the park where we all attended Mormon church services in the Liberty Ward; I entered kindergarten at Liberty School. At that time, an aged Princess Alice died at the zoo at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. Even so, her stone visage adorned the elephant house, and her name echoed so strongly that I believed her to be one of the trunk-swinging giants we visited there. When my first-grade year ended and, clad in pedal-pushers, we toted sack lunches to Liberty Park, only a small herd of begging deer and a depressed black bear echoed the former zoo’s inhabitants amid the birds of what had become Tracy Aviary.
Little did I know that when my family moved directly across the street from the tennis courts, so the swat and plonk of balls filtered through our screens on early summer mornings, our bungalow’s earlier occupants had sometimes been roused to the blast of an elephant. If only we teenagers had lazed on our big porch swing a few decades earlier, Princess Alice might have ambled across the street to greet us.
The setting for this story is the summer of 1938. It was an era of contradictions, when kidnapping was rife but shoplifting and child abuse were barely known. It was a time when childhood extended, paychecks shrank, and terror raced across Europe and China. Princess Alice is the novel’s sole historical character, and even she has been stretched a bit. I have also transformed her lesser known trainer, Dutch Shider, to meet the needs of the story.
Actually, I intended to write a different novel, although sited near Liberty Park. I kept reading books about elephants, with the feeling I had been tapped on the head by a spirit trunk. Eventually, I pilfered a few items from Dad’s old police scrapbook, one concerning a mysterious case he had solved and another case he left for me.
—Linda Sillitoe, 2010