Jim Kjelgaard, A Daughter's Memoir 
 

You have sufficient biographies of James Arthur Kjelgaard on this web page, 
along with an excellent bibliography of his books and a listing of his short 
stories.  These admirably cover the public man.  What I provide here is a brief 
memoir of the nineteen years I spent with my father.  It's as accurate as human 
memory can make it and assuredly colored by my remembrance of a kind and 
loving man. 

I was born during the years my parents lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Looking 
back, I'd consider that far from Dad's natural habitat.  My mother was a city girl, 
and my father came from the mountains of Pennsylvania to marry her.  As is 
often the case with passionate young people, I think they did not consider each 
other's fundamental nature when they married.  She did not want to be in the 
woods permanently, any more than she wanted dogs in the house.  While I was 
growing up, therefore, we mostly lived in cities.  I don't think Dad ever felt quite 
at home in those places, but it was one of the compromises of their marriage. 

I have only scattered vignettes of memories during our Milwaukee years.  I recall 
Dad getting me bear paw snowshoes and showing me how to use them during 
a huge snowstorm.  We went to Big Cedar lake every summer, and I remember 
fishing from a pier and finding at least ten little warm water fish on my line when 
I pulled it in.  Dad had swum under the pier and put them there.  It was the sort 
of kindly, humorous thing that appealed to him.  Dad's brother, John, had 
married my mother's sister, Lillian.  She was more amenable to living in the 
forest than my mother, and John had taken a job as a forest ranger in northern 
Wisconsin.  I recollect visiting them, with my father walking in front of the car 
while mother drove through fog so thick that he had to guide her so that we 
didn't go off the road. 

We always had dogs, of course, even if they did have to stay outside.  The first 
dog I remember is Mac, a golden cocker spaniel.  A few years later, I got Sheila, 
an Irish Setter shipped to us by Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie's trainer.  We had 
Sheila some years, and I wish I could say she was Big Red personified, but 
she wasn't.  But then, how many people know that the model for Big Red was 
a black setter cross that my father knew in his youth? 

It was during those years that we started to travel during the summer, ostensibly 
for research but also because my parents were curious, intelligent people who 
wanted to see what they could of their world.  We didn't have a great deal of 
money since my father was just beginning to produce enough books to support 
us, but we managed to have a more or less reasonable gray Dodge.  We 
took it all over the country.  It vapor locked every half hour, or so it seems in 
retrospect.  Dad put wet washcloths on the fuel line while we looked around for 
a while, then we'd be off again.  Our first trip to the West took us through the 
Black Hills and on over Bear Tooth summit  to Yellowstone.  Neither he nor I 
imagined anything so magnificent as the Rockies.  It was the beginning of a 
love affair with the American West for both of us and the genesis of a number 
of his books set in the West. 

After that trip we went back again and again, my parents taking photographs 
of the West and its animals while I played in its forests and mountains.  Indeed, 
one of the more significant partnerships between my parents concerned nature 
photography.  It was my mother's direct contribution to Dad's books and articles 
during those years, and a source of interest for both of them.  They took 
hundreds of photographs on these trips, most of which no longer exist. 

Much has been said of the outdoor man, who skipped school in his younger 
years to hunt and fish.  That certainly was a important aspect of my father. 
However, there were others equally important.  My father was not a formally 
educated man, but he did a very great deal to educate himself.  He was an 
avid, eclectic reader, reading any and everything that he thought might be of 
interest or use to him, whether that might be War and Peace, magazines, or 
a popular novel such as Deliverance.  His den was lined with books on natural 
history, American history, and many other topics, and he knew what was in 
those books.  He enjoyed nothing so much as discussing what he had read 
also.  I remember that he thought Deliverance the beginnings of a good story 
when one of the characters got a fishhook embedded in his thumb.  However, 
that story line was never followed. 

My father not only read widely, he was a thoughtful man concerned with the issues 
of his time and even before his time.  I remember as a small child seeing black 
men and women, in business suits and dresses, at our Milwaukee house.  Later 
I understood that they were members of the NAACP, which my parents supported. 
That was neither common nor popular during World War II and just after the war, 
but my father was not a man to believe that the color of another human being's 
skin made him inferior.  Some of those men and women became his friends. 

We always had writers at our house too.  I can remember Robert Bloch, author 
of Psycho among many other books, coming to visit often while we were in 
Wisconsin.  A tall, rangy man, he would wrap his long form around a chair and 
talk books and writing with my father until I had to go to bed and presumably 
long after I was asleep.  The two men's writing could not have been more 
different, but they were good friends.  Others can also, writers, editors, librarians, 
teachers, and sometimes he donned his one good suit and went to see them 
in various cities. 

When I was in the fourth grade we moved to Thiensville, Wisconsin.  At that 
time it was a small town in the Wisconsin farm lands.  We raised ducks and 
a garden, had room enough for Irish setter to run, and enjoyed the river and 
woodland plots that dotted the fields.  I recall it as a happy time for the entire 
family.  Mother was close enough to her family to be content, and Dad had  a 
bit of elbow room and some woods, though not precisely wild forests.  He took 
me hunting and fishing, though I was too young to carry a rifle.  Just before we 
left, he bought me my first rifle, a 22 caliber bolt action.. We often went pheasant 
hunting together, me lugging the rifle and him his shotgun.  It was quite the 
wrong weapon for bird hunting, of course, but I didn't know that, and I probably 
wouldn't have cared if I had. 

My father was a generous man.  While we lived in Thiensville, he learned that 
an eleven year old boy from a poor family was dying of leukemia.  The boy's 
parents' religious faith forbade them getting treatment for the boy,  which 
horrified Dad.  He went to visit the boy weekly for over a year, bringing him 
books and gifts.  Near the end, he went daily and took the boy a puppy.  Dad 
couldn't prevent the youngster's death, but surely he eased it. 

Our time in Thiensville was short.  My father began to suffer from back pain, 
a problem that plagued him all his life, and incipient arthritis.  The doctors 
couldn't help him, so we made plans to move to Phoenix, Arizona.  The reasons 
for leaving were medical, but I rather suspect he enjoyed the prospect of being 
in a new and wholly unknown environment. 

The first year in the Sonoran desert seemed like an exile after the green of 
Wisconsin, but both my father and I grew to love it there.  He hunted wild turkey 
in the deserts,  we fished together in the high lakes in the White Mountains, 
and I went deer hunting with him in the pine forests around Prescott.  Phoenix 
was a good deal smaller, though still a city, in the 1950's, and we lived at the 
edge of the city.  He and I often drove into the desert looking for wild animals. 
We soon knew where a mountain lion lived near Cave Creek (an area of 
resorts and big houses today), where to find springs, and what all the plants 
and animals were named. 

Our family explored all corners of Arizona and ventured a trip or two into 
Mexico before the big highway down the west coast of that country made 
travel easy.  More that a few books came from these trips.  We spent at 
least a part of each summer on the Kaibab plateau near the north rim of the 
Grand Canyon, an area he and I both loved.  At that time, you could see deer 
herds that numbered in the hundreds grazing in the meadows in the evening 
and find wild turkeys in the ponderosa and spruce forests.  He enjoyed the 
great abundance of wildlife and the general lack of human population. 

As I grew up in Phoenix, I became more aware of how hard my father worked. 
It was not unusual for him to spend the entire day in his office, typing with 
two fingers on his old manual typewriter, then eat supper and go back to 
writing.  I didn't fully appreciate that until I started working myself.  His days 
were not eight-hour days, and often he worked seven-day weeks.  By no 
means all of his books and stories were accepted for publication, and such 
hard work was the only means he had of guaranteeing a living for all of us. 

My father's last years were marked by frequent depression and illness. 
Contrary to some of the biographies on the web site, no one really know 
what was wrong with him.  He spend more and more time with 
physicians, but we never knew for sure what his illness was.  A brain tumor 
was never confirmed.  He became suicidal, was patently deeply unhappy, 
and began often to write articles too dark for publication.  As was typical 
of him, Dad still gave generously of his time, not only to schools and libraries, 
but also, by teaching writing in Arizona prisons and the mental institution. 

I was away at college his last year, but I came home for summer holidays. 
My parents had a cabin in Lakeside, a small community in the White 
Mountains of Arizona.  We were there when my father simply disappeared. 
Some days later we managed to confirm that he had returned to our 
house in Phoenix.  We went back, and the next day he took his own life. 
The only thing his doctor said to me was that he'd been afraid of something 
like this. 

I have greatly missed my father in the years since.  He would have been 
interested in my career as a college teacher of literature and perhaps even 
more interested in my second career as a software technical writer.  More 
that that, however, he would have enjoyed all the rivers and lakes I've fished, 
all the trails I've hiked, and all the place I've seen.  He'd have enjoyed my 
many dogs and other pets.  And he would have had fun talking about the 
books I've read and the thoughts I've had.  Those things were never to be 
shared with him. 

To some extent I still hear from young people who enjoy Dad's books. I've 
also occasionally met someone who was delighted to meet Jim Kjelgaard's 
daughter.  A man I worked with in a high tech company near Portland, Oregon, 
once told me that my father's books kept him out of jail.  That was a claim I 
had not heard before, and I asked him what he meant.  He told me that his 
boyhood companions had been wild and many of them had gone to prison. 
However, my father's books awoke in this man an interest in the outdoors 
that turned him toward spending his time in Oregon's wild places.  He felt 
that my father's writing had helped form his character, and indeed he had 
turned into a fine man.  I don't suppose there's a compliment Dad would 
rather have had, and I could only be sorry that he wasn't there so I could tell 
him. 

Karen Kjelgaard    November 1998 
 

 
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Last updated January 15, 1999