Interview: ‘The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes’ proves life is what you make it

From the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, PA:

H.R. Jakes wrote his debut novel, The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, about the vivacious and hilarious life of his late mother, Elaine Jakes. He fictionalized her life in a variety of stories involving romantic car rides and even a cross-dressing monkey; all while she was finding her roots and connecting to her Welsh heritage. “It is a funny story of an ordinary teacher’s life,” Mr. Jakes said. “I wanted to tell an ordinary person’s story because I wanted to show how you can take a school teacher’s life in Pennsylvania and say it has profound significance. That significance is true for everybody. Every single life has significance.”Elaine Jakes grew up in Kingston on the corner of Rutter Ave. and Pierce St. She attended Wilkes University and became a fifth grade teacher at Oliver Heckman Elementary School in Langhorne, a suburb of Philadelphia.Wilkes U

The first-person narrative follows Jakes as she sets out on a quest of personal identity and the interesting way she chooses to live her life. According to H.R. Jakes, the “zany” way his mother chose to live is how she found love, happiness, and her meaning of life.

“The first draft of the book was completed the day before she died,” Jakes said. “I had talked to her about the book before she passed. Every story in the book is one that she told or I witnessed.”

Jakes said his mother “had a hand in writing the book,” for he consulted her notebooks for ideas or stories he had forgotten. Elaine Jakes kept journals most of her life and shortly after she passed, her son found manuscripts in a metal box under her bed.

Elaine Jakes wrote, “It is time for me to fly with the Word. Explain me to my reader.” Her son did his best to follow his mother’s manuscript.

Jakes said that Homer’s Odyssey was an inspiration as it is a homecoming poem and his mother was continually trying to find her home and connect with her Welsh roots.

“The book captures her,” said Blythe Evans of Kingston, Elaine Jakes’s nephew. “It shows just how headstrong she was. Once she put her mind to something there was very little you could do to persuade her from doing what she wanted to do.” Evans said the novel displayed how his aunt stressed her Welsh traditions and how they were important to her family.

“It shows how life was for a woman who lives with those traditions,” Evans said. “It is not common for someone to uphold four o’clock tea, but Elaine did.” He said the book gives a different perspective of northeastern Pennsylvania.

A mule and mule driver in the coal mines. Photo by John Horgan, Jr./PHMC Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums/Anthracite Heritage Museum
A mule and mule driver in the coal mines. Photo by John Horgan, Jr./PHMC Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums/Anthracite Heritage Museum

“A lot of books are about coal mining, which was very important to the area,” Evans said. “But you aren’t going to find stories like this anywhere else. My favorite is about the cross-dressing monkey. I never met the monkey, but I did hear about it.”

Elaine Jakes bought a monkey named Betsy so that her son would have a sister,” H.R. Jakes recalled. The monkey lived with the Jakes for about a year but eventually the family donated Betsy to the Philadelphia Zoo. H.R. Jakes said he’ll never forgot his monkey sister.

Jakes is proud to see his mother’s personality on every page and hopes the people of NEPA can relate to her life and find their way in the world. “I hope people see that they can find joy in everyday stuff and the people of the valley see something of themselves in the book,” he said. “To derive joy from life. Life is not meant to be just about seriousness. Life is funny.”

Samantha Stanich can be reached at Sstanich@civitasmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Sameeou or on Instagram @Sameeann

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