Bettie dreams of buying a billboard. Photoshop skills come in handy!

Bettie dreams of buying a billboard. Photoshop skills come in handy!

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Burying My Dead Gives Portland History a Novel Twist

Intrigued by genealogy? Curious about local history? Riveted by a tale with twists and turns? Burying My Dead delivers. Selected by the Library Writers Project, the novel is written by Southeast Portland resident Bettie Denny.

The novel begins on Halloween night at Portland’s Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery. Oregonian reporter Murphy Gardiner has no idea that a chance encounter there will ignite a yearlong search to unravel a puzzling family tradition, plunging her into Oregon history and the tangled lives of a photographer, a suffragist, and a Chinese girl at the heart of the mystery.

If you dig through the layers of time, Murphy muses, if you put your ear to the earth and listen, the dead still speak – if only in a whisper. Those could well have been Bettie’s words when she first sauntered through Lone Fir a decade ago.

“I was touched by the history beneath my feet. Street names like Hawthorne and Lovejoy were suddenly real people. And the headstones of ordinary folks spoke volumes: babies who didn’t survive, men and women who ventured west to build better lives. I was saddened by the existence of Block 14, where Chinese residents and Asylum patients were summarily buried and forgotten.”

After much research, Bettie created characters to epitomize the time period of the 1870s. Simeon Small, an aspiring photographer, is the sexton at East Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, a job he has taken to be close to his wife, who resides at Dr. Hawthorne’s Asylum nearby. Emerson Asher, a writer and suffragist of Irish and Jewish heritage, works at the Asylum. Zhou Zhen is a Chinese girl sold by her parents in Guangdong and forced into prostitution in the strange land called Oregon.

But the author had no idea how their lives would intertwine. “I lived with these “people” obsessively for three or four years. But I couldn’t find a story. So I decided to purge them, to give them a decent burial by writing their eulogies. Hence the title Burying My Dead. I thought it would be a long journal entry. Instead, the story took on a life of its own.”

Historical connections between past and present abound – from immigration policy and women’s rights to gentrification and concerns for the environment. “We live in a such a different era – and yet, there are so many frightening correlations.” Nevertheless, Burying My Dead is primarily a celebration of kindness – and the power of ordinary people caught in extraordinary times.

The novel is available through Multnomah County Public Library’s Overdrive collection and as an ebook on many sites. Print copies, which also contain the Reader’s Guide, may be purchased through the author’s website, Book groups are encouraged to contact the author through her website to request personal or digital appearances at their book group meeting.

Bettie Denny is a native New Yorker who worked in television community affairs in Omaha, Nebraska for over 25 years. She and her husband, Pat, moved to the Richmond neighborhood of Portland in 2006. In addition to writing, Bettie is a digital artist who participates in the annual SE Area Art Walk.

For more information, contact: or 503-928-9927

Please note: The storyline in Burying My Dead includes such contemporary sites as Lone Fir Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery at Riverview, Oregon Hospital Museum in Salem, Oregon Historical Society, Genealogy Forum, U of O Archives in Eugene, the Bipartisan Cafe, and McMenamins’ Edgefield. All are potential sites for an on-location story.