My favorite writing teacher from my college days, memoirist Laurel Lee, died of pancreatic cancer last week in Oregon. She was 58 years old.
Laurel was perhaps best known for her 1977 book Walking Through the Fire, which was a Christian-themed account of her simultaneous struggle with Hodgkin’s disease, a dangerous pregnancy, and the fact that her husband was leaving her for the babysitter. The book began as a hand-written journal entitled the “Laurel Lee Goes to the Hospital Book”, and eventually went on to become (with the help of a doctor, who sent it to an editor in New York) a best-seller in the U.S. It was reprinted in 52 countries and made into a CBS-TV movie in 1979. Laurel went on to write several children’s books and four more books for adults, including Tapestry: The Journey of Laurel Lee, which came out earlier this summer. Her obituary in the Oregonian can be found here.
In the classroom, I always appreciated Laurel’s willingness to push the envelope at our decidedly conservative college (she once drove in a prostitute for us to interview for a Biography/Memior class), as well as her enthusiasm for all forms of creativity (including the time I shamelessly fictionalized a profile-bio of my dull track coach to include tales of hallucinogenic drug use and public urination). Outside of the classroom, she took an interest in my travels and encouraged me to stay with her friends (including children’s author Mike Thaler, whom she later married) during my first vagabonding stint around the USA in 1994. Two summers before that, she’d let me crash in her basement for a few months in exchange for helping her son Matthew build a room onto the house (I also worked as an extra on the set of Dr. Giggles that summer with her daughter Mary). Though I eventually lost touch with Laurel, I’ve remained long-standing friends with her oldest daughter Anna (whom I briefly dated during college).
Laurel even made it into the pages of Vagabonding, where I pulled a quote about the trappings of materialism from her 1990 book Godspeed. “Cities,” she wrote wryly, “are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.”
My condolences and thanks go out to Anna, Matthew, Mary, Mike and the various grandkids. I’ll remember Laurel well.