Most of the many books by Sonoma County author Sally Watson feature heroines much like herself — strong, feisty, independent — and are set in long-ago times and far-away places that Watson studied assiduously and then humanized with characters of her
The historical novelist, who grew up in Seattle and lived the past 35 years in a Santa Rosa cottage graced by cats and books and gardens, drew also from her remarkable life experiences. She served with the Navy WAVES in World War II, she excelled in
Scottish Highland dancing, traveled extensively, lived for more than 20 years in England, earned a black belt in judo, became a master gardener and committed to memory vast troves of literature and research.
Watson died at home on March 11. She was 98.
“Mother said I wrote my first book when I was 4,” she told The Press Democrat in 2009. She was 29 when she learned a friend had a story published in a children’s magazine, and she decided on the spot that she, too, could be a writer.
She sat at a typewriter and three weeks later completed the first draft of a book she titled “Highland Rebel.” Set in Scotland in 1745, the story starred a fearless child, Lauren Cameron, who wanted only to be out fighting the British. Watson
submitted the manuscript to Henry Holt and Company of New York, which published it early in 1954 without revision.
The author would reflect later, “I was such a novice I didn’t even know this was remarkable luck.”
In writing books, the graduate of Oregon’s Reed College found her bliss.
“She loved words,” said a niece, Karin Glinden of Trinidad, in Humboldt County. “To the very end, she loved them. She loved the sound of them, their history. Their nuances.”
Watson’s first book did well. Suddenly a woman who’d known in her bones that she did not want to become a housewife or an office worker discovered what she did want to do.
She went to work on her second piece of historical fiction, “Mistress Malapert,” about a girl who pretended to be a boy so as to get a job with William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre. With those first two books, Watson launched the 10-book Family
Tree Series, which swept across three centuries and from Great Britain to Northern California.
The writing allowed Watson to blend her love of history, especially that of England, with her fertile imagination and her eagerness for girls and women to resist societal limits and to be bold and self-reliant.
She told The Press Democrat in 2009 that she took great care to assure the historical accuracy of the times in which she placed her fictional characters. “I was always interested in the kind of history they didn’t teach you in school,” she said. “
I want to know what people thought and what they wore and what they ate for breakfast.”
Sales of her books in the Family Tree Series allowed Watson to venture forth.
“After three books,” she wrote in an autobiography, “I had enough money to go to Europe for five months. Three more books, and I went back to England for a year and studied Highland dancing and wrote some more books.”
Watson’s curiosity and sense of adventure drew her in 1957 to the young nation of Israel. Her experiences and observations there led her to write three books, starting with “To Build a Land.” It told of children who were made orphans or refugees by
World War II and who made a new life together on a kibbutz.
Wrote one reviewer, “Watson tells a hair-raising story of survival while developing some interesting characters and managing to preach tolerance between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Brits, without being preachy.”
Watson also visited Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, in each place meeting people, conducting disciplined research and storing away material for future works.
For a time, Watson lived in Oakland and wrote while also working with her mother, schoolteacher Dorothy Taft Watson, on a groundbreaking audio-visual program that taught children and adults to read through phonics.
In 1964, at age 40, the author found that while her income would not allow her to live independently in the U.S., she could do so in England. She bought and settled into a cottage in Hampshire.
There, she recalled in her memoir, she “joined in MENSA (the England-based international society of people with high IQs) and went on writing books, and took up Judo at age 45.”
Watson’s life changed dramatically in the early 1970s.
“Up until then,” she wrote, “my books were selling slowly but steadily … every time stocks got low, they (the publishers) just printed up a new edition. Now tax laws, it seems, were changed so that it was now uneconomical for publishers to keep
books in stock over the turn of the year. So all 12 of my books went out of print almost simultaneously.”
She eventually wrote 24 books.
She stopped writing. Instead, she raised cats, and she knitted splendid sweaters and at craft fairs sold artwork she made by painting enamel onto copper.
In 1987, at age 63, Watson left England and bought a small house near Santa Rosa’s Franklin Park. She chose Santa Rosa because at that time both her mother and a sister lived there.
She discovered and joined Forgotten Felines, the nonprofit that serves homeless cats in Sonoma County by providing them veterinary care and food, spaying them and when possible finding homes for them. Watson became tight friends with the organization’s
“We just clicked,” Simons said. “I have read every book she’s written.”
Simons said Watson was fiercely independent, just like the women and girls in her books.
“She was just amazing — and bright,” Simons said. “She loved to argue. We talked about politics right up to the end.”
In 2002, fan Michele Blake of Massachusetts, who had been entranced by Watson’s books since she was a kid and discovered “Witch of the Glens” at her local library, set out to see if she could help to get some of them back into print. With her
encouragement, the small, independent Image Cascade Publishing of New York republished Watson’s early books and a number of her more recent titles.
Fans and the Sonoma County Library marked the reappearance of many of her 24 books with an afternoon tea at the central branch in Santa Rosa in November of 2002.
Lifelong fan Susan Radovsky, who works as a librarian at Harvard University, was thrilled to attend the tea. She was once among the girls who couldn’t wait for a new book by Sally Watson.
“We all loved her books because of the strong heroines,” Radovsky said. “There were no other books like them. And she was funny!”
She recalls that the first time she visited the author’s home in Santa Rosa, “I found her in her garden, standing in a tree and reciting a poem.”
In about 2005, Watson resumed writing for publication. She added three titles to her Family Tree Series, and in five adult novels conjured human dramas in ancient Egypt, in Missouri during the catastrophic New Madrid earthquakes of 1811, and elsewhere.
Switching to self-publishing, Watson shared her fascination with cats in “Tailwavers” in 2010 and in 2015 released her memoir, “Dance to a Different Piper.”
She died after suffering a stroke.
Niece Glinden said she plans for a Zoom memorial and celebration of Watson’s life.
Sally Watson was born in Seattle on January 28, 1924. She was the eldest child of five, born to William and Dorothy (nee Taft) Watson. Her childhood house was perched atop a hill in Seattle and she remembered that from her bedroom window she could look
down over a mile of rooftops to Lake Washington. Though she lived and traveled in other parts of the world, she never forgot the beauty of Seattle and Bainbridge Island.
She was a month away from her 18th birthday when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In 1944, she joined the WAVES (women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve), studying radio engineering in Astoria, Oregon. After the war, she briefly attended Colorado
State College of Education and then used the GI Bill and her savings to complete her undergraduate degree at Reed College, where she discovered a love for learning and discourse and found friends and professors who were kindred spirits.
After she graduated from Reed in 1950, Sally spent some years living and working in various places on the West Coast. At one job in 1952, she helped with fan mail at MGM. She remembered seeing a very young and unpretentious Debbie Reynolds walking around
the studio lot in jeans, bringing her lunch in a paper bag, but MGM was not a natural fit for Sally. She much preferred the intellectual stimulation of helping to lead Great Books discussion groups, making lifelong friends in the process. Later, she
spent five years collaborating with her mother to create the innovative Listen and Learn Phonics program.
In 1953, Sally heard about a friend who published a story in a children’s magazine and decided on the spot to write a book for children. She sat on the edge of her bed with the typewriter balanced on a tiny table, completing the first draft in three
weeks and the second draft in another three. Highland Rebel was the story of a spirited young girl living in Scotland in 1745 during the Jacobite rising. Unusually for a first-time author, Holt, a major publishing house, accepted her book without
revision. It was published in 1954 and was highly successful. Also, unusually for a book at that time, the front cover portrayed a confident and strong girl wielding a sword. The next year, Sally published Mistress Malapert, about a girl who disguised
herself as a boy in order to work with Shakespeare at the Globe. The books she wrote throughout the Fifties and Sixties always featured strong, opinionated heroines who rebelled against the restrictions placed on females by society. Sally’s first
series of books, set in England and America between the 16th and 19th centuries, featured characters who were related by family. Some of the books contained a printed version of the complex genealogical chart Sally originally hand-wrote in calligraphic
script. They are known as the Family Tree series.
When Sally visited the young country of Israel in 1957, she was so struck by what she observed of that valiant and determined nation creating itself that she wrote To Build a Land about children from around the world made refugees and orphans,
traumatized by WWII, who learned to make a new life together on a kibbutz. She wrote two more books about Israel: Other Sandals (1966) and The Mukhtar’s Children (1968). Many years later, she reworked To Build a Land and self-published it as a book for
adults called The Return of the Exiles (2014)
After she became a successful author, Sally used the proceeds from her books to travel the world with her mother and with friends, collecting memories and impressions she would always treasure. In 1964, she moved to England, buying a cottage in Hampshire.
While in England, she learned to make beautiful scenes painted with enamel on copper which she sold at craft fairs. She took up judo, becoming a black belt in her forties. She was a proud member of MENSA, happy to find others who shared her intellectual
interests. She adored literary nonsense and satire, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Shakespeare, and could repeat many verses from memory. She loved classical music and was a synesthete, seeing music as shapes and colors.
Sally left England for the California sunshine, moving back to the US in 1987. She bought a little house in Santa Rosa and created a beautiful garden with fruit trees and a fish pond, making sure to include her favorite blue flowers, fulfilling the
requirements to become a master gardener. She joined a local group which fed and fostered feral cats, and she cherished many rescue cats in her own household, giving them long and happy lives and lots of love...
One favorite among her readers is Witch of the Glens, reprinted in 2004.
"The time was 1644 in Inverness, Scotland. As the 'wicked wee lass' raced along the steep streets, just ahead of the stones and cries of briosag! hurled at her, she wished with all her heart that she were a witch. What a spell she would put on them all!
For all her seventeen years, Kelpie could remember nothing but belonging to Mina and Bogle, gypsies who lived by their evil wits. The only law any of them knew was that of self-preservation. Bogle said she had been kidnaped because of her blue ringed
eyes of the "Second Sight," and she often wondered from where. A castle, perhaps? Nobility? But a series of events would change her life forever when Kelpie would encounter two fine young men."
(And I have to say, her other books look even better, in some ways.)
"Picked up phonics from Mother's kindergarten before I was two; the next thing anyone knew I was reading independently, which I went on doing for 12 years of public school, under my desk instead of arithmetic or geography. Rotten grades, didn't know how
to study, I just read and wrote. Mum said I wrote my first book when I was four. Four pages, lavishly illustrated, begun with total phonic accuracy: "The sun roze up." From that, she decided that I should grow up to write books for children. Well, it was
true I loved words and had a collection, just for fun, of synonyms for "said" and adverbs to accompany it. But when Mum suggested that I might write books for children, I sneered. For one thing, I'd read a book that convinced me one had to be a total
genius and collect rejections for ten years. For another, I was going to travel all over Europe and study Highland Dancing and Judo and be a Prima Ballerina, I was.
"At 16 or so, I discovered that I wasn't. Not a Prima Ballerina anyhow, and darned if I was going to settle for the corps de ballet. Disgruntled, I further realized that alone among my peers I hadn't the least interest in marriage and families. Nor in
office work, the only thing going for women in the '30's.
"Joined the Navy in 1944 and after that mess was over, I decided to go to college, and applied to Reed without knowing enough not to. They took me, it turned out, on "possible potential," and I waltzed innocently in...and by the time I realized that I
would have to commit several major and sustained miracles to stay there, it was too late to do anything else. I was hooked by the intellectual excitement. (An astrologer once told me I had "a jack-ass determination that never knew when it was beaten, and
consequently seldom was." True, I guess. A useful, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, quality.) At any rate, it was there I learned the discipline to write, but still had no idea of doing it. That childhood conviction was still with me..."