RPCV Jerry Rust Writes Murder Mystery

This is a article from Sunday’s local Eugene, OR newspaper on the self-published book, published only as an ebook, and written Jerry Rust, who served in India. Not sure of his years in-country. If you lived in Eugene, it is your kind of book, and you might know Jerry.

A Murder Mystery of Lane County
Former politician’s first novel is steeped in local history
by Randi Bjornstad
The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR

(Sunday, Jan 8, 2012 )

He started out as a Peace Corps volunteer, became a tree planter and then won election as a Lane County commissioner. After five terms in office, from 1977 to 1997, Jerry Rust worked as a carpenter before getting the yen to go off to China to teach English as a second language and, at the same time, improving his own grasp of Chinese.

Now 68, Rust has added another line to his résumé – mystery writer. He’s just finished a novel set in Lane County, “The Covered Bridge Murders,” a fact-based but fanciful story that not only incorporates nuggets of solid information about early gold mining, timber and bridge-building history, but also taps the area’s most famous and enigmatic wild child to help frame the plot.

That would be Opal Whiteley, writer of a diary she reportedly kept as a child but which later became suspected as an adult hoax because of its brilliance, a woman considered by some to be a genius, by others to be mad and who, in fact, spent the last decades of her life in a mental hospital in England, still thinking that she was the descendant of a French prince and a dead “angel mother” who taught her in childhood about nature and music.

What is not in doubt is that Whiteley spent her first years in the lumber town of Wendling near Marcola, grew up in the Cottage Grove area, loved animals, forests and wildflowers and roamed freely through woods and hills and along salmon-filled streams.

In Rust’s story, Whiteley sees lumberjacks carrying the body of her friend, Billy Joe, a 16-year-old orphan who had gone to work in the woods and dies in a logging accident. Then, just before evening that same day, she witnesses the murder of two bull bucks – supervisors of tree-felling and bucking crews, in logging parlance – who are shot and dumped off the covered bridge she’s hidden under after the shock of Billy Joe’s death.

Whiteley never speaks to anyone of what she saw, but she leaves clues to the mystery here and there in her poems.

Rust, too, grew up in rural Oregon, on a 60-acre farm east of Roseburg, where he graduated from Glide High School. He learned farming techniques from his father, who also worked as a contractor building houses and schools. The family kept livestock – Rust raised lambs as a member of the 4-H Club – and had an eight-acre plot of strawberries. “It was mostly subsistence,” Rust recalled.

After college, he decided to join the Peace Corps, where he used his agricultural background to create gardens to help people on India’s east coast to become more self-sufficient.

“I raised a huge seed bed of papaya trees,” Rust said. “You can grow a bushel of papayas in six months there – I still love papayas.”

Upon his return to the United States and Oregon, he became a tree planter, and was one of the founders of the Hoedads Reforestation Cooperative, named after the tool used to plant seedlings in logged-off forestlands.

Rust figures he’s personally planted a half-million trees in his time as a Hoedad. “I planted trees for five years, 1,000 a day for 100 days each year,” he said. He’s proud of his accomplishment to a point, “but it’s not part of an ecosystem that is completely right,” he said. “Replanting the way it’s done creates a monoculture that as it grows suppresses light on the forest floor. It doesn’t have the strength or diversity of the natural forest.”

It’s that kind of information that Rust sneaks into his new book almost unnoticed, teaching about the essential roles of plants, insects and animals in a mature, healthy forest, the geology involved in rock formations that harbor veins of gold, even a quick overview of some of the most picturesque and utilitarian covered bridges that dot Lane County, from the Pacific coast to the Cascade range.

He speaks through the fictional characters of two teenage boys who grew up in Cottage Grove. Jack, the son of “a gentle but redneck father and a hippie mother,” has an upbringing that combines logging, building and hunting with a love of literature and ecology that lets him see both sides of thorny issues that pit industry against preservation. Larry grew up in town, with a millworker father and schoolteacher mother, both whose jobs had ended during the current recession.

Both boys belonged to a high-school group of literature lovers called “The Poet’s Corner,” meeting for coffee, quips and quotations from their favorite writers. Both also desperately needed to earn money for college, which is how they hatched the plan to head for the hills in the old Bohemia mining country to try their luck for the summer before entering the University of Oregon.

That’s where they meet Ray, a 97-year-old miner who still looks for gold, hidden either in earth and rivers or in treasures lost and never found. And that’s where they hear about Whiteley and forge a partnership with Ray to find a missing cache of gold.

The idea for his book came to Rust just over a year ago during the 90-minute drive from his home on the Siuslaw River between Mapleton and Florence to a meeting of the Oregon Covered Bridge Festival’s organizing committee, which has headquarters in Cottage Grove.

“One of the ideas I brought up was to sponsor a literary competition about covered bridges and local history,” Rust said. “I saw some flickers of interest, but not the flashes I was hoping for. Then, on the way home, I started thinking about doing something myself, and by the time I got there, I had decided to take up my own challenge.”

Cottage Grove had it all – gold country, a “tremendous downtown with history peeling off every brick,” the biggest concentration around of covered bridges “and Opal Whitely, one of the most famous women in Oregon history,” he said. “I just started mixing it up in my mind, found out when Lord Nelson Roney had built the bridge at Lowell and realized that Opal Whiteley would have been 10 years old then.

Oddly enough, it was Rust’s frequent trips to China – besides teaching there, Rust married a Chinese woman, Zhang Yu Cai, seven years ago and the two travel frequently back and forth – that gave him the idea to make his book a murder mystery.

“I’d never read many murder mysteries, but once when I went to China, I took along about 10 Agatha Christie novels,” he said. “So when I heard my own challenge, I thought, ‘Murder, yeah.’ ”

Once he got started, the book nearly wrote itself.

“It was quite a great feeling to have myself be swept along by a force, almost supernatural,” Rust said. “I had never written any fiction before – I hadn’t dared to venture there. But there’s a distinct freedom or liberty in taking off on a piece of fiction; you have to make it plausible, but it doesn’t all have to be true.”

In this book, “dates, the mention of period songs and events, these are accurate,” Rust said. “Nearly all references to (Opal Whiteley) are inspired by her diary. The other characters in the book are based on people I have known or heard of, or have read about in and around Lane County, or they are composites.”

It’s his intention, though, that “the density of the history is strong enough to carry the story along.”

Although this is Rust’s first foray into fiction, he has collaborated on books with other writers three times before.

The first, in 1981, was “The Bridge – A Simple Key to Understanding the Chinese Language.”

Six years later, it was “Breaking Out of Foochow,” a memoir of a visit to Foochow in China’s Fujian province as part of a sister-city delegation. In 1990, it was back to the woods with “The Yew Tree, A Thousand Whispers: Biography of a Species.”

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