What: Debra Gwartney discusses her new memoir, “I Am a Stranger Here Myself”

When: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Sunriver Books & Music, 57100 Beaver Drive, Building 25-C

Cost: Free, registration requested

Contact: sunriverbooks.com or 541-593-2525

Award-winning author and writing instructor Debra Gwartney’s new memoir, “I Am a Stranger Here Myself,” is a fascinating examination of her struggle to recognize and accept her identity and role as a woman in the American West. Contemplations of her family’s history in Western Idaho are illuminated by comparisons with the missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, who was killed in 1847 by Cayuse Indians at the Whitman Mission near what is now Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington.

Gwartney will discuss “I Am a Stranger Here Myself” at a Sunriver event Saturday.

Gwartney’s views on Whitman changed radically over time as she learned more about the religious zealot, her actions and her background. When Gwartney was a child, she had read a biography about Whitman and thought of her as a hero and a martyr. In her 30s, Gwartney read “Converting the West: A Biography of Narcissa Whitman,” by Julie Roy Jeffrey that looked much more critically at this episode in history. Whitman then became much more of a nemesis in Gwartney’s mind and the author considered writing a book that would condemn Whitman’s actions.

“But while I would never try to justify her actions, the more I looked into her, the more I began to see her humanity and how she was trapped in other people’s expectations,” Gwartney said. “I realized after reading four, five, six books about her, that she’d had plenty of examination and there was really nothing new I could say about her. But then, I thought she’d be a really interesting pry bar to use to open up an examination of myself.”

Gwartney had written the memoir, “Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love,” about her difficult and humbling path to finding and rebuilding a relationship with her two oldest daughters who became runaways in the wake of her failed first marriage.

In her latest book, Gwartney wanted to find out why she had always felt troubled about her own role as a woman and bookworm in a somewhat patriarchal family of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, first as she was growing up in Idaho and later living in Oregon.

Gwartney is a fifth generation Idahoan, with her ancestors moving to the area not long after the Whitman massacre. Delving into her family history, Gwartney talked to family members, dug through family letters and pictures and also utilized a book her grandfather had written chronicling his life. Her maternal grandfather owned the newspaper in Salmon, Idaho, so she was also able to look back through past issues for information.

“Most of all, I relied on my own memory, because as a memoirist I really believe the true story resides there, and I just needed to tease it out,” Gwartney said.

By writing the book and comparing and contrasting her own “outsider” experiences to those of Narcissa Whitman, Gwartney sought to reach a new understanding of herself and her family dynamics.

“For me, my father is still a symbol of that Western frontiersman in many ways,” Gwartney said. “What I discovered was that this hard and fast idea I had about my father was something that really needed some reexamination. I had to be much more open to who he is.”

She came to a similar realization about Whitman and found some surprising similarities between herself and this historical figure she had demonized.

“I think she suffered from profound loneliness and was afraid to admit it to anyone,” Gwartney said of Whitman. “I’ve struggled with loneliness, too. As a child, I felt I didn’t fit into this Western ethos. I didn’t want to hunt or go swim in the river with my cousins. I wanted to go into my grandmother’s study and read. I struggled with where I fit in.”

Gwartney was also curious about the code of silence among the women in her family and for Whitman.

“When these women suffered a personal tragedy such as the loss of a child, they were told to just buck up and move on,” Gwartney said. “I thought for a while the fact that the death of children was more common then made it easier, but now, I really don’t think so. They really had no outlet for their grief, and I started wondering how that grief had gone on through the generations.”

The unusual structure of the memoir — four sections that interweave historical details with Gwartney’s own story — was something the author struggled to perfect. She spent several years writing her stories and Whitman’s stories and trying to put them together, but her trusted readers would tell her it just wasn’t working.

Eventually, a series of physical objects linked to Whitman — a lock of hair, a book she had touched, a wine named after Whitman and her trunk which is displayed at the Mission museum — gave Gwartney the keys to a narrative structure that enabled her to mesh all the stories and themes together.

“I fiddled until the last, last day — until they took it out of my clenched paws,” Gwartney said. “The last year that was the hardest work I did. Narcissa’s story was more set and an easier tale. Figuring out what that meant to my heritage was the harder work in the end.”

Gwartney is now working on individual essays and says it might be some time before she can wrap her head around another book.

Her husband, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, also released his latest book, “Horizon,” in March.

“It’s been a little complicated around our house lately,” Gwartney said. “We’re both really ready to settle in for a time.”

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