Niles, Blair Rice

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NILES, Blair Rice

Born 15 June 1880, Coles Ferry, Virginia; died 13 April 1959, New York, New York

Also wrote under: Mary Blair Beebe

Daughter of Henry C. and Marie Pryor Rice; married C. William Beebe, 1902 (divorced); Robert L. Niles Jr., 1913

Exposure to the black tenants of her father's plantation gave Blair Rice Niles a sensitivity to alien cultures, and her marriage to a naturalist opened the world of exploration and scientific observation for her. Her first publications were articles and a book, Our Search for a Wilderness (1910), drawn from their travels in the South Pacific and South America. Niles' second husband, whom she married after her divorce from Beebe, accompanied her on subsequent explorations and provided the photographs that enhance many of her books.

Niles' next books, Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923), Colombia, Land of Miracles (1924), and Black Haiti (1926), are travel books that do more than merely chronicle explorations. Before making her trips, Niles always carefully researched the history of her destination. Therefore, each journey becomes for her not only the immediate physical reality, but also the visualization of events both momentous and ordinary in the lives of people of many generations, nationalities, and races. In her research, she always preferred to work from the diaries and journals of lesser figures, because she felt the major historical personages did not give as true a picture of the impact of historical events on the human mind and heart. Her detailing of history is always interesting, but her real power is in her description of the activities of living people.

Niles' most significant work grew out of her trip in 1927 to the penal colony in French Guiana. She was the first woman ever allowed to make a study of the prison, and her husband took the first photographs made there. Condemned to Devil's Island (1928) is the fictional biography of a prisoner. She gives the reader not only a complete account of life in the penal colony, but also sympathetically treats the effects of such punishment on the spirit as well as the body. The success of this book prompted Niles to write the sequel Free (1930). Her position in both books is that the inhumanity of the prison system either destroys or warps the inmates, and fails to rehabilitate them to a society that has arbitrarily classified them as criminals.

Niles' observations of sexual mores in the prison prompted her to write Strange Brother (1931), a novel treating the homosexual subculture of New York with unusual sympathy and perception. This was followed by Light Again (1933), a fictionalized study of an insane asylum.

In 1934 Niles returned to the history of Central and South America for the material of her novel Maria Paluna. This is the moving story of an Indian woman whose life spanned the century of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. In her life with the Spanish, her love for one of the conquistadores, and her growth as a defender and promulgator of the Indian culture, Paluna convincingly portrays what happened in Guatemala during the 16th century. Niles wrote other novels that are fictional accounts of historical events; while good, they do not have the power of Maria Paluna.

In 1939 Niles published The James as one of the "Growing Rivers of America" series. She gives personal and historical accounts of life along the banks of the Virginia river. Niles' research into the life of George Washington for this work resulted in her biography, Martha's Husband (1951), which treated Washington from a personal rather than a political or military perspective.

Niles' interest was always in human personality. For their time, her works are exceptionally daring and enlightened. Her genuine sympathy for the people and cultures she studied provides unusual perceptions about the truths of life in those times and places. Niles journeys in space and time, and makes both come alive for the reader.

Other Works:

Day of Immense Sun (1936). A Journey in Time: Peruvian Pageant (1937). East by Day (1941). Passengers to Mexico: The Last Invasion of the Americas (1943). Journeys in Time: From the Halls of Montezuma to Patagonia'sPlains: A Treasury, Garnered from Four Centuries of Writers (1519-1942) (1946).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

American Novelists of Today (1951). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

NYHTB (29 Dec. 1946). NYTBR (6 May 1934, 14 June 1936, 4 Apr. 1943).

—HARRIETTE CUTTINO BUCHANAN

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