Jim Kjelgaard, A Daughter's Memoir
You have sufficient biographies of James Arthur Kjelgaard on this web
along with an excellent bibliography of his books and a listing of
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
I was born during the years my parents lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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.
often the case with passionate young people, I think they did not consider
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
I have only scattered vignettes of memories during our Milwaukee years.
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
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,
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
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
didn't go off the road.
We always had dogs, of course, even if they did have to stay outside.
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.
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,
for research but also because my parents were curious, intelligent
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
us, but we managed to have a more or less reasonable gray Dodge.
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
love affair with the American West for both of us and the genesis of
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.
one of the more significant partnerships between my parents concerned
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.
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
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
interest or use to him, whether that might be War and Peace,
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
those books. He enjoyed nothing so much as discussing what he
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.
that story line was never followed.
My father not only read widely, he was a thoughtful man concerned with
of his time and even before his time. I remember as a small child
men and women, in business suits and dresses, at our Milwaukee house.
I understood that they were members of the NAACP, which my parents
That was neither common nor popular during World War II and just after
but my father was not a man to believe that the color of another human
skin made him inferior. Some of those men and women became his
We always had writers at our house too. I can remember Robert
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
long after I was asleep. The two men's writing could not have
different, but they were good friends. Others can also, writers,
teachers, and sometimes he donned his one good suit and went to see
in various cities.
When I was in the fourth grade we moved to Thiensville, Wisconsin.
time it was a small town in the Wisconsin farm lands. We raised
a garden, had room enough for Irish setter to run, and enjoyed the
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.
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
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
wouldn't have cared if I had.
My father was a generous man. While we lived in Thiensville, he
an eleven year old boy from a poor family was dying of leukemia.
parents' religious faith forbade them getting treatment for the boy,
horrified Dad. He went to visit the boy weekly for over a year,
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
a problem that plagued him all his life, and incipient arthritis.
couldn't help him, so we made plans to move to Phoenix, Arizona.
for leaving were medical, but I rather suspect he enjoyed the prospect
in a new and wholly unknown environment.
The first year in the Sonoran desert seemed like an exile after the
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
and I went deer hunting with him in the pine forests around Prescott.
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
and animals were named.
Our family explored all corners of Arizona and ventured a trip or two
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
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
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
two fingers on his old manual typewriter, then eat supper and go back
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.
means all of his books and stories were accepted for publication, and
hard work was the only means he had of guaranteeing a living for all
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
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
and began often to write articles too dark for publication. As
of him, Dad still gave generously of his time, not only to schools
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
The only thing his doctor said to me was that he'd been afraid of something
I have greatly missed my father in the years since. He would have
interested in my career as a college teacher of literature and perhaps
more interested in my second career as a software technical writer.
that that, however, he would have enjoyed all the rivers and lakes
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
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.
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,
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.
that my father's writing had helped form his character, and indeed
turned into a fine man. I don't suppose there's a compliment
rather have had, and I could only be sorry that he wasn't there so
I could tell
Karen Kjelgaard November 1998