A Father's True Story
A piercing cry from the heart, a resounding call for reform -- and that rare thing: a unique book. Wharton (Last Lovers, 1991, etc.) reports on events leading up to and away from the death of his daughter under horrific and, many will insist, unnecessary circumstances. On August 3, 1988, Kathleen Wharton Woodman was driving on Interstate 5 in Oregon with her husband, Bert, at the wheel and their daughters, Dayiel and Mia, strapped in their car seats. Suddenly the four were heading into billows of black smoke. Next minute they were dead, incinerated as the result of a highway pile-up. The smoke came from nearby fields where seed farmer Paul Thompkins was executing an annual activity, field burning. Wharton, immeasurably grieved and outraged, divides his account into three parts. The first, "Kate," is actually fiction, Wharton's idea of how his likeable, practical daughter might have told the story of her life. It's a simple life, full and uneventful in the way many lives are. In the second section, "Will," Wharton describes how he and his family handled their mourning, how they traveled to Oregon, where Will became convinced that field burning is not the only way to sanitize land. Mounting a campaign to fight the widespread practice, Wharton gathered what evidence he could, including pictures of the deceased that he had taken at the mortuary. "This first one is the one who burned the least, the little baby, Mia," the mortician says at the outset of the grisly, memorable scene. "Settlement," the book's third part, details how Wharton tried to force the kind of public trial that would expose the cruel arbitrariness of field burning. But authorities, including his own lawyers, pressed for a settlement to which he finally, frustratedly succumbed. Wharton's ordeal is not easy reading, but his persistence in assailing the woeful cause for it is highly admirable.