Thursday, Jan 01, 2015

Please meet Ms. Carrie Carlton, a/k/a “Topsy Turvy” 

Or, how I stumbled across an almost-forgotten author

Recently at an auction, we purchased a box of books – there were one or two titles that were familiar, so we took a chance and bid $50 for the box, desperately hoping we weren’t overpaying.

Brought the box back to the shop and started rooting through with a mixture of anticipation and dread (oh my goodness, is that a first edition Steinbeck?  Drat, no….    Uh oh, what is this piece of junk – is that mold I see?).  An exercise that is often disappointing but always interesting.

Then I spotted it, hiding away at the bottom of the box, its rather drab covers seeming to say “oh, please, no need to worry about me….just let me continue to rest here in my quiet little corner”.  But I knew a Civil War-era binding when I saw one, and plucked the hesitant little creature out into the daylight.

Hmmm……Wayside Flowers, by Carrie Carlton….published in Milwaukee in 1862.  Well, there was some Wow factor – so it’s actually early Civil War.  Published by Strickland and Co., “Booksellers and Stationers” – a fairly common arrangement in those days.

I then peer inside – OK, it’s poetry.  The text pages are some of the cleanest I’ve seen for books of this era, with no foxing.  Of course, it’s mid-19th century poetry – so I like it – but will anyone else?  In other words, is this book saleable?

And, who is this Carrie Carlton, anyway?

She’s not in the BAL.  A search on Abe only turns up one title by her, Inglenook, a Story for Children.  And that piqued my interest – so I go into bloodhound mode, and start searching for traces of her online.

Meet Carrie Carlton, a pretty, black-eyed woman, sweet and confiding, full of good humor... and clever with the pen.  When her husband died, leaving her with three children to support, she was necessarily forced to yoke her talents together to draw her in her humble cart along the rough way.  The five dollars a week she received from the Mercury News barely sufficed to stand between her and extreme want; but when extra writing came in to add to the amount she forgot the necessaries of life and indulged in the luxuries.  Other kinds of employment she sought, but at writing only was she a success, as she lacked the business instinct.

Personally Carrie Carlton always made friends, as she was possessed of a loveable, grateful disposition.  Her “Wayside Flowers” is a collection of promising verse, issued in 1862.

The one book I'd found online by Carrie, Inglenook, is a bright story of early California life for children; and it was her last work.  Her many privations were finally too much for her delicate constitution, and in 1868 she succumbed.  Friends laid her away tenderly, and remembering the brightness of her mind amid all her trials, they erected a stone to her memory in the Masonic Cemetery of San Francisco, and placed upon it this inscription:   "Topsy Turvy", May 1, 1868.  CALLED HOME.  Aged 32 years.

(The above story on Carrie Carlton is reprinted from The Story of the Files:  A Review of Californian Writers and Literature, by Ella Sterling Cummins, San Francisco, World’s Fair Commission of California, 1893.)

Through this story I feel as though I’ve met, over a span of 150 years, a young woman I would have liked to have met and known, one whose voice – still, small, and quiet though it is – can still be heard today.

A used bookstore is likely the only place this could have happened.  Here we collect together the works by those who have gone before us, who have lived, breathed, and walked this earth, many of whom have, through trials and challenges, gained wisdom and insights it would be foolish for us to ignore.

Some became household names.  Others, like our Ms. Carlton, were known in their day but are now known only by a few, if any.

But their words, their stories, live on in their books.  And in a hidden nook of our shop, a volume such as Wayside Flowers will arrive on wings of serendipity, and if you spend some time with us searching into those nooks, you too could unexpectedly meet someone from the past whose voice will touch your heart.