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In Twilight Years, She Is Shining

Julia Cunningham is going strong in her 80s with a sought-after collection of poetry and a children's book that's selling briskly.

March 18, 2002|KATHLEEN SHARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Julia Cunningham basks in the winter sun, dressed in a soft stir of blue wool, surrounded by her stuffed totems: a furry fox, two moles and a much-respected wolf. At 80-something, the poet and children's author looks grandmotherly, but she possesses the intense gaze and unabashed wonder of a young girl. "It's like a miracle," she says, referring to her recent run of luck.

Cunningham's lush children's book, "The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems" (Greenwillow Books, 2001), is selling briskly after garnering a dozen excellent reviews; the New York Times called it "powerful" and "stirring." Her book of grown-up poems, "The Shadow Heart" (Fithian Press, 2000), is a collector's item now that it is out of print after two runs. A production company just purchased the rights to her 1962 classic "Macaroon," the tale of a girl whose parents are perpetually absent.

And this fall, Random House will reissue Cunningham's 1965 work "Dorp Dead," the groundbreaking book that critics said introduced a sinister psychological reality into the children's book genre. Nearly all of Cunningham's 22 books center on abandoned, sometimes abused, children who endure psychological isolation before their spiritual release. Animals and allegory inhabit her fables, which seem grim but never hopeless.

Take the protagonist in "Dorp Dead." The orphan Gilly--a poor speller--is apprenticed to a carpenter who tries to cage him. Gilly saves himself from the psychotic man through his love for his dog, his connection to nature and the mysterious Hunter. When Gilly finally escapes, he leaves the carpenter a note to "Dorp Dead!"

"I remember when 'Dorp Dead' was the most talked-about book in the business," said Janet Schulman, vice president of Random House Children's Books. "It's an uplifting story that is beautifully written, but it's like a dark, gothic mystery. I think it will resonate with today's young adults."

Cunningham regularly visited California schoolchildren for decades, until she began losing the use of one leg. "I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten from children who want to hear how Gilly's doing," she said.

But Cunningham is notoriously reclusive with adults. Yet when the talk shifts to writing, she becomes open and preternaturally young. She wears her hair like a 9-year-old: bobbed at the chin with bangs pinned back with a barrette. Her face is wrinkled, but her complexion is soft and downy. Her blue eyes shine like minnows, and she's sporty in pleated skirts and white anklets. She prefaces her sharp observations with a polite "Perhaps you'll agree with me..."

Cunningham says she's self-educated, and her friends joke about her "orphanology" degree. She has mined her childhood pain to construct her brutally--and beautifully--honest narratives. "Kids understand everything as long as it's true," she explained.

Born in Spokane, Wash., around 1920, Cunningham was packed around in a bureau drawer as her family moved. Her grandfather owned one of the first banks in Montana, and "he used to collect gold dust from the miners" as payments and deposits. Her mother was raised in privilege. The family left the West for New York, where Cunningham's father worked as an engineer.

Life was idyllic until Cunningham turned 6. That's when she beheld her last true Christmas--"a tall candlelit tree hovering over a magical model village ... the last gift of a father who was to disappear...." He walked out on his wife and three children. For the next two Yuletides, Cunningham watched for his return. At 9, she gave up waiting and fell seriously ill. The girl eventually recovered but was never quite the same.

"I would become a pretender," she wrote in a 1986 memoir. So began the poet's incubation. Her mother moved the family like nomads for years. During the Depression, Cunningham and her family "lost every cent" after the family bank collapsed. The teenager went to work in New York, first as a bank clerk, then as a magazine editor. Her favorite post was at the Metropolitan Museum, where she was surrounded by friends--and "that vast and fascinating group of everybodies called The Public."

After many years, she finally saved enough money to travel to France--just as her mother had done as a youth. In 1951, Cunningham lived for a year with a French war widow. Amid the cobbled streets and castle cellars, she was reborn: "That's when my English prose arrived." She wrote a story about Andrew, a tenderhearted rat who tangles with gangsters in Paris. That became 1961's "Dear Rat," which one reviewer called a splendid spoof of the hard-boiled detective tale. "Little did he know that the laughter and love within the book were really a parade through my homesick self," she later wrote in the memoir.

Houghton Mifflin didn't know what to do with her work, so it published her in the children's genre. "I was so fortunate," she said. By 1959 she moved to Santa Barbara, where she fell in with a bohemian group.

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