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-by Daniel Pawley

The Diary of an Immigrant

On the evening of November 21, 1919, Ollis Evenson, 59, was struck by an automobile and-by his own account-nearly killed. He had been standing near the intersection of Raymond and University Avenues in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when the vehicle interrupted his nightly walk from work to home. Later, he wondered how close to death he had actually come, though "thank God," he wrote, "I only lost about two square inches of skin on the back of my right hand. The driver did not even look back, but sped on like a streak of blue lightening."

It was the second time in just a few years that this Norwegian immigrant had been almost flattened by oncoming traffic. Such incidents, along with hundreds of others, were recorded by Evenson in a diary that spanned the years between 1897 and 1923. The diary fell into my hands for 25 cents at a garage sale held in a big, white house overlooking Saint Paul's Como Lake, a canoeing pond surrounded by oaks, maples, antique street lamps, and a pavilion used for summer concerts. Lying at the bottom of a box containing an overpriced collection of Mark Twain's works, which seemed strangely easy to ignore on this August morning in 1995, the diary "was screaming to be read," I recall saying to my wife.

It wasn't the original diary but rather a typed reprint sandwiched between bright red covers. One of Ollis Evenson's grandsons had rescued the fragile pages of the authentic document and retyped them as a retirement project during the mid-1980s. In a memo to family members, the grandson described how he had sought to preserve the family's heritage by typing up the diary entries "exactly as written by Ollis," including the misspelled words. He asked for help in trying to recover the diary's lost years (1901-11; 1915) and supplemented the project with two pages of family-tree information, a photograph of his grandfather, and a photocopy of Ollis Evenson's death certificate. All of it together constitutes a garage-sale masterpiece. Written for self-discovery ...

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