THE HAPPY BOTTOM
by Lauren Kessler
Book reading and signing, Thurs June 22 at Twenty-Third Avenue Books, 1015 NW 23rd Ave, 224-6203
Some of the best role models for girls are women who smoke and drink, who ignore housekeeping, dress haphazardly at best, chase sexy, younger men, work with big ideas and defy convention in every way possible. That's the key: Defiance. We don't hear enough stories of women who are outright defiant, but they're there. Why aren't these the women in our history text books?
The Happy Bottom Riding Club, by Lauren Kessler, is the autobiography of Florence "Poncho" Barnes, an aviator who makes her colleague, Amelia Erhardt, look like a relatively tame poster girl for early aviation. Her nickname, Poncho, comes from a long trek through Mexico, escaping from a bad situation after hiring on as a shiphand, disguised as a man.
Lauren Kessler is calm, poised, and articulate. She's the director of the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon, wife and mother, author of nine books. Unlike Poncho Barnes--who neglected her one son and tore through a string of marriages--I suspect Kessler is a conscientious mother, and perhaps a role model in her own right in terms of accomplishment and stamina. I asked Kessler how spending two years researching and writing the story of Poncho Barnes effected affected her vision of her own life.
She said, "You can't spend that much time with somebody, even a person who's dead, and not let it have an impact on you. Poncho never took 'no' for an answer and never saw herself as a victim, regardless of what happened...She wasn't a healthy woman. She had a stroke and two bouts of breast cancer. And she didn't have good luck with husbands. Some of the men she loved didn't love her back. You could write that as a victim story. Instead, she came out fighting after every setback. To see that over-exuberance of spirit, that quality she had of meeting all challenges...she was reckless. She went off in all directions and wasn't strong on follow-through. But she met the challenges of her life with enormous energy and spirit, and that's a lesson." She also had a good time doing it.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club was the unofficial airforce hangout, bar, and possibly a brothel. Poncho Barnes shocked and mystified her neighbors, encouraging gossip. They turned her life into legend. There's nothing wrong with that.