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Laureate of Cross Creek lives again

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling _ or, more accurately, the traveling actor Betty Jean Steinshouer, who portrayed Rawlings on Wednesday evening _ strolled into the recreation room of the Lakes Region Library dressed in a black button-down dress with a pink rose on the lapel, her gray hair tucked neatly into a black sequined hat.

She toted a pack of Camel cigarettes and sipped from a clear glass teacup containing a mysterious brown liquid. As she reached the front of the room, the audience of more than 70 people couldn't help but laugh as she held up the cup and quipped: "You will tell my husband it's tea, won't you?"

Right away, the audience knew it was in for an enjoyable performance.

Steinshouer, 49, of St. Petersburg shares her 14 years of research on female writers such as Rawlings, Willa Cather, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Laura Ingalls Wilder through the medium of one-woman shows, complete with costumes and props.

The performances take place as conversations between writer and audience, after which Steinshouer allows the audience to test her knowledge of the writer with an impromptu question-and-answer segment, all the while effortlessly remaining in character.

Steinshouer said she particularly enjoys portraying Rawlings and Cather because audiences react to the dry wit of their personalities and hilarious anecdotes from their personal lives and careers. Many anecdotes in the Rawlings performance involve the writer's flirtatious interest in a variety of men, and her Cracker neighbor named Dessie, the advice-giving outdoorswoman who kept Rawlings grounded in the midst of her writing life in Cross Creek in Alacuha County.

Another such anecdote involved Rawlings' encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald at a hotel in North Carolina. According to Steinshouer's performance, while staying in a cabin in Spruce Pine, Rawlings received a telegram from their mutual publisher informing her that Fitzgerald, also staying in the area, had suffered a broken clavicle.

The telegram implored Rawlings to check on Fitzgerald. After leaving several messages at his hotel desk, Rawlings was able to make contact with Fitzgerald, who remarked, "I don't have any intention of putting on my trousers today."

To Rawlings, the remark sounded "promising." And as the story goes, after sharing six or seven bottles of good wine, charged to their publisher's tab, Rawlings finally found the way back to her cabin. But Rawlings was sure to point out that "Scott" had remained true to his wife, Zelda.

One thing Rawlings was serious about was her affinity for the scrub region of Florida, or the Ocala National Forest area, as it is known today, and its native Cracker population. In her estimation, Crackers were lawless in that they followed the rules of nature, or "God's laws."

As Steinshouer put it, Rawlings came to Florida to find a place to write, and because she, like her father, had an "unholy desire for a farm, all she required was a livable house and some citrus."

A line from Rawlings' little-read sonnet, Having Left Cities Behind Me, attests to the fact that Rawlings either blamed or exalted places for the types of memories she experienced there: The cities left behind me "burned together in the fire of my despising _ and all I can remember is wild ducks flying south."

Steinshouer's audience was entertained and moved by the performance. Lola Czupka, 75, of Inverness said she "enjoyed it immensely. (Steinshouer) certainly keeps you spellbound. Your mind doesn't wander."

Karl Seidman, 59, also of Inverness, said he hadn't read The Yearling, but "the performance makes me want to go back and read it."

Many audience members marveled at Steinshouer's ability to remain in character throughout the performance _ a goal Steinshouer takes seriously. Her purpose is to get people to read and to give people what they can't get in books.

Earlier Wednesday, Steinshouer staged a similar performance at the Citrus Springs Community Center. Both performances were presented as part of the Reading Across Citrus: One Community, One Book project. The project encourages all Citrus residents to read and discuss the same book, Ecology of Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray, which addresses topics affecting rural communities, and to attend various community events designed to enhance their reading experience.

The project's final event will be an appearance by Ray on Feb. 17 at the Curtis Peterson Auditorium in Lecanto.