National parks in the 1920s hadn't yet found their identities. Would they be covered with parking lots and golf courses? Cordoned off and kept pristine? Some combination of the two?
In her newest novel, Albany Christian fiction author Karen Barnett explores that time period through a character's struggle to find both a professional and personal balance at Mount Rainier National Park.
"The Road to Paradise" is Barnett's fifth published novel and the first in a three-book series of Vintage National Parks novels.
Barnett will be the guest at an author signing from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. this Saturday at Willamette Valley Christian Supply in Corvallis, doing author readings at 10 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Another signing is planned from noon to 3 p.m. July 15 at Rainbow West in Heritage Mall, Albany.
Barnett, 47, has turned to historical fiction for all four of her previously published novels but never looked at the parks system until now.
In some ways, it was a natural choice. Barnett grew up in Tacoma and was always fascinated by Rainier's looming presence.
She studied geography at Valparaiso University in Indiana, then geoscience at Oregon State University. She drove a tram at a wildlife park called Northwest Trek in Eatonville, Washington, then landed a job as a naturalist at Rainier.
Barnett spent two seasons at Rainier — "Working there was just an honor beyond belief," she said — and spent another two years as the sole naturalist for Silver Falls State Park.
But the problem with park work is its schedule — summers, weekends, holidays — and Barnett wanted to see more of her husband, Steve, Linn County's geographic information systems manager. The family moved to Albany in 2005.
Barnett had always loved to write, and date nights with Steve were often spent in the children's book section Salem's former Borders bookstore.
"I thought I was going to write children's picture books at first," Barnett said. "I thought the baby would sit in a cute little Moses basket next to the computer and I would write and the baby would coo ..."
Barnett laughed at the memory. "Not how it worked," she acknowledged.
But though parenthood kept her busy, the desire to write didn't fade. When son Andrew, who graduated from West Albany High School this month, and daughter Bethany, a sophomore at West this fall, were in school, Barnett began work on the novel that would become "Out of the Ruins," a fictional account of one woman's survival of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
She was inspired by a documentary on the event and the first-person memories it shared from people who had been small children at the time, wandering alone through a burning city. She looked at her own children and wondered, what if our family were separated? What would they do?
Barnett began the book as a project for middle-grades readers, then rewrote it for teens, then rewrote it again for adults. "It was my learn-to-write book," she explained.
It also wasn't the first published. That honor went to "Mistaken," published in 2013, about a woman whose brother is a rum runner during Prohibition in Washington state. That was inspired by a family legend in which a grandfather got caught by government agents and always swore his wife had called in the tip.
"I got to thinking, what would make a woman turn in someone she loved?" Barnett said.
Barnett thought about self-publishing, but it had always been a dream to have a traditionally published work — plus, it's easier to stock a bookstore shelf with something publisher-approved.
It wasn't easy to find a publisher, however, or the right agent to shop her books around, Barnett said. She found both at various writing conferences, which she recommends as good places to pitch your work.
Barnett's first publisher, Abingdon Press, eventually decided to get out of the fiction business. Barnett was looking at traditional Christian historical fiction, much of which is set on the Oregon Trail, and decided she wanted to do something different.
She thought about her parks experience and the heyday of their development. "I thought, that's the story that hasn't been told." Her new publisher, WaterBrook & Multnomah, agreed.
From Rainier, Barnett moves to Yosemite, then Yellowstone for her Vintage National Parks series. The Yosemite novel will be set in 1929 just before the stock market crash — "It's all flappers and jazz and excitement and new money," she said — and Yellowstone will be set in the 1930s.
Both novels, as yet untitled, were easier to research than Rainier, which hasn't yet digitized much of its history.
Barnett spent a few days at the park itself, looking through archives. She found a wealth of information on how various forces thought the park should be developed. At one point, a golf course covered a subalpine meadow and Longmire, then the park's headquarters, featured a bobsled run.
In "Paradise," Barnett's main character, Margie, is in love with the park's natural beauty. But her former fiancé is determined to develop the Paradise Inn into tourism central.
It's an ideological struggle that's still in play throughout the nation today. But Barnett tends to come down on the all-access side of the argument. National parks, she said, are "something everyone can see, and I think everyone should."'
They're also the places to witness the miracle that is nature, Barnett said.
"I see God's fingerprints in His creation," she said.