By Nancy Tannler
The Lone Fir Cemetery’s Tour of Untimely Departures will not be taking place on Halloween this year, but fortunately for story lovers, Bettie Lennett Denny got the tour and was inspired to write her most recent novel Burying My Dead.
This page turner was written during an era when Portland’s population was growing and expanding into the eastside of the river, in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
It was also a time when civil liberties were being challenged especially in regards to Chinese immigrants, women’s rights, people of color, non-Christians, and people with a physical or mental infirmity.
Denny deftly weaves her characters, both past and present, into a solid story that both entertains and educates the reader. She draws on the narration of one of her characters from her novel Angel Unfolding, reporter Murphy Gardiner.
In the book, Gardiner has recently moved to Portland and is a reporter working for The Oregonian.
He notices a mysterious Chinese woman when on assignment covering the Tour of Untimely Departures at the Lone Fir Cemetery. She is curious why this woman is lying three white roses on the grave of an early white settler.
This relationship is the spring board that launches both a present day mystery and an intriguing tale from Portland’s past.
Burying My Dead gives a voice to many early settlers. Her characters interact with famous people like Harvey Scott, Abigail Scott Duniway, Dr. James Hawthorne, Joseph Buchtel, Henry Weinhard and Simon Benson, all easy to know since they are real people from the area’s past, but it’s Denny’s fictional characters that make us want to keep reading chapter after chapter.
She writes about people being given a second chance in life. Regular people like Simeon Small, photographer and the sexton of the Lone Fir Cemetery; Emmerson Asher, divorcee and champion for the rights of women; Zhou Zhen, a young Chinese woman sold into prostitution. These and the rest of her interconnected cast of characters are the heart of this novel.
In an interview with the author, Denny remarked that even though she was writing about a hundred years ago, life situations paralleled what is going on today.
The development of the eastside from farms to neighborhoods was a big change. These new neighborhoods created a place where those with a less lucrative career could live.
She notes how even when she moved here twelve years ago SE Portland was much more diverse economically and affordable. Migration and new development has started pushing the marginal people outward again.
On the national stage, immigrants are facing deportation and prejudice, sex trafficking still happens and legal opiates have become the drug of choice – all intrigues the characters deal with in the novel.
Denny began writing when she was eight years old. Living in Queens, NY where there wasn’t a lot of outdoor activities, she wrote plays with her friend to entertain themselves.
As an adult, she raised her family and worked in communications in Omaha, Nebraska. Using her wordsmith abilities, she wrote documentaries, and trade journals for the FCC in broadcasting and tech production.
“The industry was changing so quickly during those years that even writing technical material never got boring,” she said.
Before settling in Portland, Denny lived in Montana and was inspired to write the novel Angel Unfolding about a woman in a Montana jail cell’s retrospection on her life.
Like in her new novel, Denny incorporates real situations into her novels and brings the characters to life using the personalities of people she knows, as well as her from own multi-dimensional personality.
“I went to a talk by Chelsea Cain, a journalist at The Oregonian and publisher of Heartsick, she was definitely instrumental in my growth as an author,” Denny said.
Burying My Dead is a journey of horror and hope supported by the rich characters Denny brings to life.
The novel is available through Multnomah County Public Library’s Overdrive collection and as an e-book. Print copies may be purchased through the website, bettiedenny.com or at Broadway Books. Book groups are encouraged to contact the author through her website or at firstname.lastname@example.org.