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In the 1970s Doubleday published three of my books: And the Land Provides, a non-fiction account of a year spent with Alaska's Aleuts, Indians and Eskimos after they won a billion dollar land claims settlement; Tatting, A New Look at the Old Art of Lace Making; and Women's Guide to Boating and Cooking, a pre-women's lib classic written after I sailed half way round the world in a 36-foot schooner.

"We're reluctant to put them all in the catalogue under your name," my editor joked. "Who would believe they were written by the same person?"

Fast forward to couple of years ago when I told a friend I was writing a book about a traditionally raised Alaskan Eskimo who became an international movie star in the 1930s.

Oh, you're switching to fiction," he replied. But Eskimo Star: From Tundra to Tinseltown: The Ray Mala Story, is not fiction at all. Which is what I like about it and my trade: Finding truth that is so much like fiction no one would dare to write it without real footnotes.

As for my interest in "good time girls" and prostitutes, no reporter has ever had the courage to ask if I had hands on experience before writing Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush and Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder, and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier. The answer is no, but my family history provides a vested interest.

You should also know that early-on I tired of other writers insisting most frontier prostitutes were doomed to short, desolate lives; felled by drink, drugs, disease, and suicide. As Paula Petrik rebutted after publishing the most through research I've ever encountered on the red light district of Helena, Montana, (No Step Backwards published by the Montana Historical Society):

"If, in fact, many prostitutes killed themselves, we would find evidence for their suicides in the coroner's reports and in vital statistics register—mortality rates. The fact is that we don't. To be sure, there are suicides in the tenderloin (two over a thirty-five year period in Helena), but there are far more suicides among men. We should find in the vital stats, women perishing of drug overdoses, venereal disease, and so on. We don't. Western cemeteries are not filled with poor prostitutes who took their own lives nor were victims of occupational hazards. We can, then, ask ourselves: What happened to them? That is a far more interesting question."

Wanton West: Madams, Money, Murder and the Wild Women of Montana's Frontier is my attempt to answer that question, as is Good Time Girls of the Alaska Yukon Gold Rush. They are illicit histories of a very different sort.

Books by Lael Morgan

 

Media Writing Course

For nearly a decade Lael Morgan has been teaching Writing for Mass Media at University of Texas at Arlington. This course can be taken online, taught by Morgan and her colleague Pat Gordon through Distance Education during the fall and winter semesters. Click here for more information on UTA Distance Education and a syllabus for Morgan's fall section.

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