By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Former Keizerite and author Barbara Dan is no stranger to the strength of community, she’d seen what was possible when people acted together as a volunteer when she lived in Keizer.
“I knew what real community involvement could do. I was amazed at what good neighbors could do,” Dan said. “You can find solutions and people help and encourage each other.”
In a roundabout way, those ideas are what inspired her latest book, The Outcast: The Long Road Back, a fictionalized account of her grandfather’s arrival in the Salem area in 1913 and how the people he met created the space to put his life in order.
In the book, the main character, Alex, steps off a sternwheeler on Front Street with one thing on his mind: where he’ll get his next drink.
“The first thing he found out, even before he got off the boat, was that he wouldn’t be able to buy booze anywhere because it was a dry area,” Dan said. “So, he began looking around for a druggist who might be amenable to giving him cough syrup that would get the job done.”
Instead of a stiff drink, Alex makes contact with a local doctor who becomes a lifelong friend.
“He was the sort of non-judgmental person who broke through simply because he cared and he makes Alex question how much he really wants to leave drinking in the past,” Dan said.
The towering 6-foot-8 Alex, it turns out, has spent years traveling after being exiled from his home in Buffalo, NY, and his arrival in Salem marks a turning point.
When one of his three daughters is sent to live with him, he also meets the love of his life, Emily, the daughter of the doctor.
Through the daughter, the two begin a new relationship that may see Alex through his recovery.
Dan relied on volumes of research about the Salem area as she crafted the tale and discovered that Salem was one of many cities rapt by the possibly of human flight at the time.
“The postal clerk was building airplanes and my grandfather was involved with that. A lot of young men were getting the bug to fly and he did, too,” she said. “Taking hold of and pursuing his own dreams was a big part of what helped him change his life.”
The novel also includes excerpts from her grandfather’s journals to flesh out the motivations for this exile and subsequent travels.
While area and family history informs the story, the loss of that history played a large part as well.
“I had seen the family property in 1973 and taken photos of the old swimming pool and barns and carriage houses and kennels where he trained show dogs,” Dan said. “There were also huge walnut and prune orchards on the hillside.”
When she returned to it more than three decades later, much of what had remained was gone.
“It was a very strange thing to have photographs in my hand that showed what had been there and all these years later, there was hardly any evidence they had lived there. It was like history vanishing before my eyes,” Dan said.
A neighbor who had lived nearby while her grandfather was still alive helped her fill in some of the gaps in her family’s history and writing The Outcast is a small part in reclaiming it.
In some ways, it’s a journey simillar to her grandfather’s more than a century ago.
“The whole town, the people back then, were finding what they were best at and it benefitted the whole community,” Dan said.