Kokio is a biographical novel based on the life of Neill James, a remarkable and complicated woman who died in 1994. Author Stephen Preston Banks introduces readers to her with this prologue, and then allows his fictional narrators to tell the story of Neill’s life as he imagined it.
Interspersed with the text are screenshots of two other places in the book, as formatted for the Amazon Kindle.
SHE HAD JUST FINISHED her bachelor’s degree at the finest women’s college in the South. She was a mediocre student, vainly handsome, a bold and accomplished athlete, and a first-rate stenographer with a professional certificate to prove it. She told people her parents were wealthy plantation owners and her father owned the first Buick in Mississippi. A century later her descendants would report that her father had gone bust and the family back then was dirt poor.
It was 1918, and she landed a job in Washington, D.C. at the Department of War. She was then merely sixteen years old, or nineteen, or perhaps twenty-three–it would depend on which of her stories you believed. Her name was Nell Neill James, but by then she insisted on being called Neill James.
Before the end of 1918 she would be assigned as secretary to the base commander of Fort Vancouver in Washington State. Within the following year she would be reassigned and have the same job title at Fort George Wright in Spokane. How she achieved those senior positions so early in her work life is not revealed in the records. In the three years following demobilization, she would operate a clothing boutique in Portland, Oregon, sell ice across Oahu while living at Waikiki Beach, and then join the U.S. Department of State as a clerk in the embassy at Tokyo, Japan.
In Japan the State Department put her up at the Imperial Hotel and later settled her in a house, alone but for her maid and cook. She went, or was sent, on a wintertime sojourn to Mukden, Harbin, Manchuria, Mongolia and Korea, traveling behind the lines of the Sino-Japanese War. In her first book she called the trip “a holiday.” Upon returning to Tokyo she wrote directly to the Secretary of State to complain about her pay: Her clerk’s wages couldn’t cover her housing expenses and wardrobe, and she demanded a raise. Secretary Kellogg asked Ambassador McVeigh in a hand-written note if he might find less costly lodging for her. The Ambassador filed the note in her personnel folder.
While in Hawaii she passed her free time sunbathing and surfboarding and told everyone she was half-Native Hawaiian. In Japan she told colleagues she was seven years younger than census documents would show it. Later, in Berlin, she claimed to be part Japanese. At age twenty-five or twenty-nine or thirty-two, depending on which of her stories you believe, she convinced a German customs official that she was eighteen. So she claimed in her first book. Her age on half of her passports was wrong, some off by four years, some by seven.
She wrote feature articles about her marriage to a Scottish lord with six names and managed to get the articles published in newspapers in Portland, Oregon and New Haven, Connecticut. She included details about her wedding at New York City’s fashionable Riverside Church and told of the groom’s aristocratic family back in Scotland. On March 13, 1937, the day of the purported nuptials, Riverside Church was closed for a civic event. Neither the Scottish lord nor his families can be found in the genealogies and biographical sources. The new husband, she had written, was a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. That institution, however, has no record of his ever enrolling there. She claimed she attended the University of Chicago in 1919, but officials there can find no evidence of her matriculation. No record exists, either, for the marriage.
By the time she was entering middle-age, Neill James had circled the globe at least twice; summited most of the highest peaks in the continental U.S., Hawaii, Japan, Europe and Mexico; conducted studies of Lapland’s Sami, Hokkaido’s Ainu and the Otomí of Mexico’s highlands; and published four travel books and one novel with the top publishing house in the English-speaking world. She shared her editor with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She took charge of the publicity for her books, broadcasting on WOR New York as The Petticoat Vagabond–traveler, author and lecturer. She did similar broadcasts in wartime Japan, Korea and China. She corresponded with her editor, Maxwell Perkins, on letterhead stationary of luxurious hotels where she had never lodged.
She stayed four months in Mexico City’s American-British Cowdray Hospital to recover from near-fatal injuries she sustained in a fall descending from the summit of Volcán Popocatéptl. She grew impatient with the medical staff at Cowdray, left against doctors’ advice, and took over her rehabilitation at a remote hot springs resort near Toluca. The Paricutín volcano had just begun its violent birth from a corn field in far Colima. She hitched a ride with three women touring Mexico in the future Princess Titi Von Furstenberg’s chauffer driven phaeton. Overnight at the foot of Paricutín, the log hut Neill was sleeping in collapsed under the weight of volcanic debris, and her legs and shoulder once again were crushed. She was the only one seriously injured.
The four women were chauffered back across Mexico to the Cowdray Hospital. An old friend arrived from San Francisco to visit the convalescing travel writer and spoke of a quiet place on the shore of a spectacular lake in the Jalisco Sierra where Neill might recover from her injuries. When Neill could travel they went to the tiny fishing village of Ajijic and settled in at the casita of the Heuers, émigré German brother and sister, who saw them through the first few weeks. The friend left for home; Neill remained at Ajijic for the next fifty years, ever after walking with a limp. There she established a women’s millinery cooperative, created two public libraries, was said to have brought in electricity and telephone lines, and bought, sold or gave away dozens of houses. She would tell people Amelia Earhart was her dear friend and Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and Tennessee Williams had come to see her.
After settling in Mexico she stopped writing, although for the rest of her life she would sign gift copies of her books “The Authoress Neill James,” making a little circle for the dot over the i.
Chapter I continues the story, transitioning into biographical fiction, with fictional narrator Damon Byrd James recalling Neill’s early family history.