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Oregon's Very Own John Grisham

An interview with Phillip Margolin


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Author Phillip Margolin traded the thrills of the courtroom as an Oregon trial attorney for a career penning legal thrillers, and has nearly 20 bestselling books to show for it. His most recent novel, a historical drama titled Worthy Brown's Daughter, is a heartbreaking story of slavery and murder set in nineteenth-century Oregon. Margolin will visit Paulina Springs Books in Sisters this Saturday, April 12 to read from his work.

Source Weekly: Can you describe your inspiration for Worthy Brown's Daughter?  Is there a historical basis for the novel?

Phillip Margolin: In the early 1980s I read an article about Holmes v. Ford (1853), the only Oregon case dealing with slavery. Colonel Nathaniel Ford brought the Holmes, a family of slaves, from Missouri to the Oregon Territory with a promise to free the family if they helped him establish a farm in the Willamette Valley. Robin and Polly Holmes kept their part of the bargain and Ford freed them, but he kept their four children, claiming that he'd fed and clothed them when they were too little to work and was now entitled to their labor. Robin and Polly were illiterate and uneducated and Oregon was very racist in the 1800s. They had to find a white lawyer to sue Ford, a powerful Oregon legislator, for their children. After many years, they won their case but one of the children had died in Ford's custody. I thought the case was heartbreaking and it inspired my novel, Worthy Brown's Daughter, which is a heavily fictionalized version of the case set in 1860, Oregon's second year of statehood.

SW: Oregon doesn't have the most enlightened history with race, as it was established as a "white only" state, but it also was a state that banned slavery. What evidence did you find during your research for the novel that shed new light on this tragic aspect of our history?

PM: There were over 30 slaves in the Oregon Territory, even though slavery was illegal. Greg Nokes' excellent book, Breaking Chains, is a non-fiction account of slavery in Oregon, which has as its centerpiece the Holmes v. Ford case.

SW: What are the obstacles of writing historical fiction, as opposed to the contemporary mystery novels you are best known for? Was writing about 19th century law and legal process a challenge?  Were you surprised by how much/how little the law has changed in 150 years?

PM: Writing Worthy Brown's Daughter was a huge challenge, because I had no idea what day-to-day life was like in Oregon in 1860. Even worse, Matthew Penny is a major character. He is the white lawyer who sues powerful attorney Caleb Barbour, who has freed his former slave, Worthy Brown, but is still holding Worthy's 15-year-old daughter, Roxanne, as a slave. To make the book realistic I had to learn what life was like in 1860 in Oregon and what it was like to practice law in the 1860s. I found out that lawyers and judges had to know the law and how to shoot a gun. Legal cases were sometimes settled with pistols, and judges and lawyers rode the circuit, sleeping in the open or in frontier cabins, fighting bandits and dealing with terrible weather. One of the most interesting things I learned was that there were no courthouses in Oregon in 1860 so cases might be tried in a field or a tavern.


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