Growing up in Washington, Enumclaw author Jamie McGillen has always found herself oriented by Mount Rainier, both literally and figuratively.
“When you have something that high you can always tell where north is and south is and where the ocean is,” she said. “I moved away a couple of times — I lived in Illinois and I lived in Nashville. And every time that I came home, I can remember so many of these moments in time, driving away from the airport, and then I could see Mount Rainier on the horizon as we got onto the highway, I was just like… ‘I’m home.’”
As such, it’s to little surprise that her foray into the historical fiction world is set around the state’s largest landmark in The Rainier Series of books: “In Sight of the Mountain”, “In Light of the Summit”, and “In the Heart of Paradise”.
The series follows Anna Gallagher, a young woman of the late 19th century who lives in the up-and-coming city of Seattle, but longs for the wilderness and adventure — specifically, to be the first woman to summit Mt. Rainier.
Problem is, McGillen explained, that back in the late 1800s, women had a set place in proper society, and it certainly wasn’t at the top of a mountain.
It wasn’t always that way, though: “When we first came out here, and it was very frontier-ish, early 1800s, all the women had to help… you have a lot of situations where the women are expected to do as much as the men are,” she said, referencing the classic T.V. show, “Little House on the Prairie” as an example. But once the territory became more established and settled, “they tried so hard to put women back in the home. And for the most part, women were like, ‘Oh, thank God.’ … But not all women. Some women liked doing that stuff, helping do important things and being outside.
“I love the idea of women doing what they need to do, you know?” McGillen added.
That’s the thin line her main character walks as she tries to fulfill her dreams while balancing the expectations of her grandparents, brother, and wider community — does she do what’s expected of her, and marry a man of prosperity and fill the role of the dutiful housewife? Or does she risk becoming a pariah, not just in her community, but to the people she loves and cares for the most?
In contrast to Anna’s lofty goals, The Rainier Series is grounded in historical and factual accuracy that serves to enhance the reader’s idea of what life was like in Washington more than a century ago.
“I wanted it to be as real as possible,” McGillen said, adding that she sought out historical documents and experts on various related subjects to achieve this effect.
For example, McGillen draws upon the account of one of Mount Rainier’s most famous climbers, John Muir, who summited the mountain in 1888.
“More pleasure is to be found at the foot on the mountains than on their tops. Double happy, however, is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach, for the lights that shine there illumine all that lies below,” the co-founder of the Sierra Club wrote in the article, “An Ascent of Mount Rainier.”
But Muir’s telling of his ascension is far more flowery prose than factual details, so McGillen also utilizes the experience of Charlotte Austin, a Seattle-based travel writer who has summited not just Mount Rainier, but mountains all across the world.
“She gave me all the ins and outs of actually how to summit,” McGillen said, from the equipment explorers need to the myriad dangers climbers can experience.
The books are not just about mountaineering, though — to bring her world to life, McGillen researched everything from what it was like to give birth when the practice of obstetrics was shifting from midwives to male doctors to the (poor) relations between Washington settlers and the Duwamish tribe, who were forcibly moved off their land to build up Seattle (Anna befriends a native indigenous woman early on in the first book, much to the chagrin of her grandfather, who harbors serious prejudice).
Even small details like what people wore to how much common goods cost were thoroughly scrutinized; McGillen used an 1890s edition of Harper’s Bazaar to research both.
“That’s kind of one of my favorite parts,” she said. “I love the advertisements because you get to see the prices, but then more importantly, how they advertised to people back then. … Ads say so much about a culture.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
McGillen is new to Enumclaw, having just moved to the city from Tacoma last April.
Before writing The Rainier Series, much of her work revolved around poetry; she decided to give fiction a shot to give herself a challenge.
She started writing “In Sight of the Mountain” about four years ago.
“My son was in elementary school and my daughter was two, and she would take these luxuriously long three hour naps in the afternoon,” McGillen said. “I decided I was only going to write while she was sleeping. I wouldn’t eat, I wouldn’t shower, I wouldn’t clean, wouldn’t do dishes, nothing. I would only write during those three hours. And if you write [for] three hours, you can get thousands of words… so that entire book was written while she was napping.”
The inspiration to write the series came from an image she saw of Mount Rainier’s first female summiter, Fay Fuller, who reached the top in 1890, at the Washington State History Museum.
“It looked so real. I don’t know if it was… remastered or retouched, but it looked like a picture that could have been taken yesterday, and I just really related to that,” McGillen said. “I just thought, … ‘What would it be like, that long ago, to be like, I’m going to climb a mountain?’
“Really, I was inspired by her story,” she added.
The Rainier Series can be purchased at The Sequel in Enumclaw (1456 Cole St.); more information about the author and her books can be found at www.jamiemcgillen.com.