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Local author tells Depression-era story in novel

Gresham woman drew from her childhood for book
by: John Klicker, Alice Mitchell used her memories of growing up in Depression-era Portland to write the novel 'A Father's Heart.'

The Portland of the Depression may seem like a distant memory to some people, but for Gresham resident Alice Mitchell, the memories of the city and the era are still strong.

She remembers traveling as a young girl on the streetcar - unsupervised and without a need to worry - to downtown. She remembers the splendor of the lobby in the 2-year-old Paramount Theater, now known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. She remembers seeing movies at theaters that are now closed, and visiting the Portland Hotel, which was demolished in 1950 and eventually became Pioneer Square.

Portland of the Depression years serves as the backdrop to Mitchell's new novel, 'A Father's Heart,' her second book and a loosely autobiographical sketch of her life growing up in the city. She will discuss and sign copies of the book starting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, at Courtyard Fountains Retirement Community, 1545 S.E. 223rd Ave.

Set in 1930, the book tells the story of Maddie Miller, an 11-year-old girl who lives with her mother and grandmother in a house in the working-class Alberta district. Maddie is concerned with finding her missing father, a search made more difficult by her mother and grandmother's unwillingness to help. Unable to find any answers about her father, Maddie turns to her religious faith for assistance.

'Her frustration is very profound,' Mitchell says. 'She's in a corner, you might say, unable to cope. In almost desperation, she turns to her simple faith in prayer.

'It's a fiction novel, insofar as the storyline,' she says. 'However, the essence of the story is drawn from my own experiences because I grew up without a father, and that leaves a definite void in your life, no matter what anybody says.'

Mitchell says she started writing 'A Father's Heart' in 1992 while taking a creative writing class at Mt. Hood Community College. Her teacher advised her to write about something that Mitchell felt passionately about, so Mitchell developed the story by drawing upon her memories as a little girl.

'I knew that the main character was going to be the little girl, and it was her struggle to discover something about her father and to solve that mystery,' Mitchell says. 'It was a story that seemed to evolve very naturally. As one sequence would end, another sequence would present itself and the story would go on like that.'

Like Maddie Miller, Mitchell was raised by her hardworking mother, Maxine Ellinger, although she was often boarded with families in Hillsboro, North Portland and Northeastern Portland.

Mitchell's grandmother, Lilly, inspired the religious elements of the book. Mitchell says her grandmother influenced her faith in subtle ways, usually by letting Mitchell ask her questions or by sharing stories and examples, such as comparing a typical Portland rainstorm to Noah's Ark.

The Depression, she says, emphasizes her mother's outer and inner struggles in their search for fulfillment.

Mitchell's own childhood during the time influenced many of the scenes and places in the book. Besides the rare thrill of traveling downtown on the streetcars, she remembered the Alberta district from visiting and playing at the grandparent's home of a childhood acquaintance, Robert Mitchell, who would eventually become her husband. Mitchell was a homemaker.

'It's surprising when you begin to delve into your memory really seriously, one memory will trigger another one, and it just evolves that way,' she says. 'Pretty soon, you've got a whole string of memories that you thought you had forgotten, but they're there.'

To ensure that her memories corresponded to actual history, Mitchell says she visited the Oregon Historical Society and traveled to the various buildings, neighborhoods and sites mentioned in the book.

To help remember the feel of traveling on the city streetcar to downtown Portland - a roundtrip that cost 40 cents at the time - she visited the Oregon Electrical Railway Museum in Brooks, which has a refurbished, working model of an old Portland streetcar on a mile-long loop track.

'The moment I got on that old trolley car down at the museum, it all came back. I was 8 years old again,' she says.

Mitchell completed the book in 2002, but didn't look for a publisher until after her husband's death in 2004. The book was published in November 2007 and, so far, it has received positive reviews from readers.

Although the book's story takes place almost 80 years ago, Mitchell says the book is timely, not only because it deals with a single-parent family, but it also offers an example that there is always hope, no matter what one's problems are.

'There is an answer if you wait long enough and you search for it, you'll find it,' she says, noting 'Since I've lived through that on my own level, I feel I had the ability to tell that story.'