Neill James has been dead since 1994 but her voice lay waiting for me in her books. When I opened one and began to read, her voice rose right up out of the pages! And these are musty old books, the two of her five I have been able to find, Dust On My Heart: Petticoat Vagabond in Mexico and Petticoat Vagabond: In Ainu Land published in 1946 and 1942, respectively. After her travels, Neill James settled here on the shore of Lake Chapala, where I now make my home. Her own home, donated to the Lake Chapala Society, is a place I frequent, wandering in the gardens, attending lectures and teaching workshops, drinking coffee.
I have never before experienced hearing an author the way I hear this dead woman, Neill James, speak in my ear. Perhaps it’s her writing style, the way she inserts her opinions so judiciously and deliciously in the travelogues. Perhaps it’s her audacious nature, coming through the veil of what she chooses to tell and not tell, where she chooses to go, how she chooses to interact with the people who live in the lands she drinks in, like the thirsty vagabond she names herself to be.
Whatever it is, I long to have crossed time and been her friend. I cheer with her when she circumvents an obstacle, I laugh with her when they tell her over and over what she can’t do—before she goes right ahead and does it. I admire her impartial tone when she describes the dangers and the very physical hardships that sometimes resulted from her facing them. Here is the succinct fashion in which Neill summarizes the two separate volcanic accidents that brought her to settle here in Mexico: “I fell on Popocateptl, and Parícutin fell on me.”
Neill James lived her life exactly the way she wished to live it, in a world that had no conceptual box for a solo and intrepid traveler who happened to be female. I respect her self-respect, that of a woman born at the end of the 19th century when the 14th Amendment of the Constitution defined “citizens” and “voters” as “male”.
But that voice! How did she secrete it into the fusty pages now sitting on the shelves for seventy-five years? She was published by Scribner’s, who at the time was also publishing Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It is my fervent hope that her works be re-issued so that others can experience the living energy of her words.
Neill James major works:
Dust On My Heart: Petticoat Vagabond in Mexico (1946)
Petticoat Vagabond: In Ainu Land, Up and Down Eastern Asia (1942)
Petticoat Vagabond: Up and Down The World in Asia (1942)
White Reindeer (1940)
Petticoat Vagabond among the Nomads (1939)
And here are descriptions of some of the fascinating photographs you can see in the Lake Chapala Society Neil James Memorial Photo Collection:
Neill James inside the crater of Popocatepetl, elevation 17,894 feet.
1940 Asia Neill James in an Ainu village with a bear cub being raised for sacrifice at the Sacred Bear Ceremony.
1940 Asia Neill James with Ainu Chief and Chieftess of Siraoi, standing before the grass house in which she lived.
1938 Finland Ms. James traveled 2,000 miles driving a reindeer riding in this one-runner sled called a pulkka.
1938 Finland, Neill James in Imari Lapp costume which she wore while living with the Lapps.