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Oct 22, 2020

Darby Patterson’s New Novel Is Just One of her Artworks

“The Song of Jackass Creek” is a melodic and melancholy mystery

By Ed Goldman

Renaissance” is a fine name for that period in Europe’s history (roughly the 15th and 16th centuries, give or take a week or two). But it’s too often used as an adjective for someone who’s adept in several categories of creativity—just as “genius” is the operative term in Hollywood for just about everyone who can string together a sentence, splice together some film and amass enough investors to churn out a hit movie.

That said, meet Darby Patterson, Renaissance Woman. She’s an accomplished novelist, a clever short story writer and skilled sculptor (you can see some of her work at darbypatterson.com). She also plays the violin. And, at 74, Patterson still has the energy to climb hills and boulders with her husband of 16 years (mental health advocate Randall Hagar), as well as her kids and grandkids, using their Pollock Pines home as studio and base camp.

Darby Patterson and Friend.

In all of Patterson’s work—most significantly for me, her new mystery novel, “The Song of Jackass Creek”—she can arouse your emotions, inspire repeat grins and elicit a gasp or two for her aesthetic eye. The book is a fine evening companion as you sip wine or cocoa before a roaring fire this coming winter—one that emanates from your fireplace, I hasten to hope, since Patterson and her husband lived close to peril all summer and into early fall. Fires ravaged the nearby landscape as Pacific Gas & Electric played peek-a-boo with scheduled power blackouts in the foothill and suburban communities of El Dorado County. “We’ve been lucky so far,” she says.

A professional journalist, Patterson was editor of the weekly newspaper now called The Rancho Cordova Grapevine-Independent.  After that she was hired to write liberal commentaries that frequently ran opposite the late Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative ones in the Sacramento Union, a newspaper to which Mark Twain had also contributed essays, though many decades earlier. After a run of more than 140 years, the newspaper closed up shop 36 years ago.

I met and initially wrote about her when she had founded the late Stride Center—an organization that offered rigorous training, largely financed by donations and government funds, to people who didn’t have the money to enroll in even community college certificate programs to become computer technicians. “I was proud of that job,” she tells me. “It gave people a chance to step into the economy.”

The Song of Jackass Creek” (which is available at Amazon in hard copy and also as an audio book narrated by the author) is set in the fictional town of Redbud (population 386) and allows readers to immerse themselves in the milieu of a Northern California logging town—complete with local characters that the author affirms are based directly on or are composites of the variously narrow-minded and open-hearted forest dwellers she lived among, as well as the carpetbaggers who primarily see the hamlet’s leafy copses as cash crops.

While she lament her skills as a self-marketer—“I can promote anyone but me and anyone’s work but mine”—Patterson insists that the social media’s insatiable hunger for content and “people’s love of stories” means “There’s never been a better time to be a writer.” 

“You just have to sit down and do it,” she says. ”You can’t allow yourself to be distracted. You have to do the work and recognize that when it’s finished, it’s really not.”

What I most enjoyed about the book was Patterson’s authoritative voice. At another time, a critic might suggest (thinking he’s being gallant) that Patterson writes like a man. In fact, she writes like an author—intelligently, firmly and wittily. If you were to read this evocative passage—

“Keeping with tradition, the mill closed early on Friday to allow the workers to prepare for the weekend’s festivities. Most of the women, however, remained behind, busy in last-minute details of the 42-foot long float. The parade would start at 6 p.m. that night, attracting nearly everyone from a 25-mike radius for Redbud’s half-hour on Main Street. The only phone line to cross the thoroughfare had been removed for the event by a crew wearing what looked like, at least, official phone company uniforms. There was a rumor the mill’s annual entry in the float division would be breathtaking and also very tall.”

—I think you’d have a hard time finding clues to the author’s gender. But then, I already told you. Patterson is female. In fact, what you might call a Renaissance Woman.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).