Last night I had insomnia, and as I jumped from browser tab to tab looking at things I never make time for during the normal day, I discovered that one of my favorite authors died in August. I was sad, because I loved her work, and it’s had a recurring role in my life, despite not being lit-ra-choor.
In 1991 I was 19 years old, living and working on a dude ranch in the Sonoran desert of Wickenburg, Arizona — dude ranch capital of the world. I’d lived/worked away from home before, but only within a couple of hours. This was right after I dropped out of college and decided I wanted to try living in the desert. I had not actually read Desert Solitaire yet, but I was surrounded by people who had, and absorbed their secondhand Edward Abbey fantasies.
The main living room at the ranch where guests would gather for drinks before dinner had a wall of bookshelves, filled with paperbacks that people could borrow or trade as desired. One day when I didn’t have a ride to the library in town, I went to the wall and pulled out a tattered paperback titled Naked Once More by Elizabeth Peters. It turned out to be a mystery novel with a fantastic middle-aged former-librarian-turned-romance-novelist amateur detective female lead (long before chick lit made such things popular). It was full of literary references, and it made my brain light up so much that I decided to go back to school during the spring term while I finished out my dude ranch stint.
I also spent that spring semester motoring through every book written by Elizabeth Peters and her other pen name, Barbara Michaels. The Elizabeth Peters series were my favorites, especially Jacqueline Kirby (of Naked Once More) and Amelia Peabody.
I don’t remember when, but at some point between 1992 and 1995 (I *think* it was then. Maybe it was later. She might remember; I can’t.), I introduced Andrea Middleton to the books. She also loved them. We would shout, “Huzzah!” in true Amelia Peabody form when we needed to get ourselves going.
During a period of winter depression when I lived in Bellingham (sometime during 1995-1996?), I pulled myself out of the pit by reading all the Kirby and Peabody novels in a marathon to rival any of today’s Netflix marathons. When I emerged, I shouted, “Huzzah!”
Living in Vermont (1996?) and reflecting on that time in Bellingham, I wrote the 2nd of 2 fan letters I’ve ever written in my life (the first was to Luke and Laura of General Hospital when I was very young and watched it with my grandmother). I thanked her for writing books that were so good they could beat depression, told her that Huzzah! was the Andrea-Jen war cry, and asked if it was going to turn out that Sethos was Emerson’s illegitimate brother. She didn’t reply, but based on the way she wrote about author fan mail in Naked Once More, I was glad to have written the letter.
Andrea was pregnant and choosing a name for her first child in May of 2008. She had a boy name lined up and was trying to figure out a girl one. Emma, a family name, was in the running, but all the girls in Andrea’s generation had had A names, so she considered that as a possibility and mentioned the one she had in mind. I loved Emma, but hated her A name, so I sent her a list of girl A names I thought were better, including Amelia after Amelia Peabody for an adventurous spirit and steel-trap brain. Just after election day, welcome Amelia Middleton.
On August 8, 2013, at the age of 85, Barbara Mertz (Elizabeth Peters’s real name) died at her home. Her Amelia Peabody series spanned 35 years. Mertz won numerous awards for her books, and is one of the few writers of historical novels whose accuracy I have never questioned — she held a PhD in Egyptology. She was also an animal lover, and cats frequently featured as characters in their own right in her books.
Today I adopted another cat (Sadie Zap’s mom, who was destined for a shelter), and I’ve named her Miz Kirby in memory of the first book that sucked me into the Elizabeth Peters world.
Andrea and I are thinking that we should re-read the Peabody oeuvre in memoriam. Anyone want to join us?