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Harriet Doerr (dowr) was born Harriet Huntington in Pasadena, California, on April 8, 1910. She was the granddaughter of railroad magnate Henry Edwards Huntington. She loved her large family and the house in which she was born; in fact, she memorialized this house in her essay “A Sleeve of Rain,” which she wrote for The Writer on Her Work, Volume II (1991), edited by Janet Sternburg. She wrote poetry while in high school and in 1927 began attending Smith College. As a sophomore she transferred to Stanford University, where Albert Doerr was studying engineering. They married on November 15, 1930, and she left the university with only one five-credit history course lacking for her B.A. degree. The couple had one son and one daughter. Harriet Doerr occupied her spare hours by writing character sketches in a neighborhood women’s writing group.{$S[A]Huntington Doerr, Harriet;Doerr, Harriet}

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Except for a total of fifteen years spent in Mexico and a brief stay in Philadelphia during World War II, Doerr spent her life in California. Her trips to Mexico with her husband when he worked for a family mining business left a deep impression on her. She acknowledged that although her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, was not strictly autobiographical, it was the years spent in Mexico that provided her insights into the Mexican villagers’ way of life, which is at the core of this work.

After her husband died in 1972, she decided at sixty-five to return to college, first attending Scripps College in Claremont and then returning to Stanford to earn her B.A. in history. Doerr found her creative writing course so fulfilling, and her instructors so encouraging, she stayed at Stanford for five years. She enjoyed attending workshops with visiting writers Eudora Welty and E. L. Doctorow. At her professors’ urging, she submitted some linked short stories to Viking Press. Editors there suggested that she transform the collection into a novel. Doerr worked three months smoothing out transitions, eliminating unnecessary characters, and patching up the chronology. In 1984, at seventy-four, she published Stones for Ibarra, which won the 1984 American Book Award for first fiction. In 1985 she was also awarded the Bay Area Book Reviewers award, a PEN Center U.S.A. West fiction award, and honors from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and from the Commonwealth Club of California. She was very encouraged by this first effort, which centered on the tensions between a California couple sent to manage a Mexican copper mine and the villagers of Ibarra. In 1988, Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a television dramatization of the novel, starring Glenn Close and Keith Carradine.

Having won unqualified acclaim for her first novel, Doerr began work on her second, Consider This, Señora, which also took place in Mexico. The cultural differences between Americans and Mexicans had both charmed and startled her when she lived there, and she again focused on their interaction. Both novels contained previously separate short stories, and both provided vivid Mexican landscapes, honest characters, and lucid prose.

In addition to her novels, fashioned in part from short stories, Doerr also composed two volumes of short stories, Under an Aztec Sun and The Tiger in the Grass. She also published stories in periodicals such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, and her piece “Edie: A Life” was included in the anthology The Best American Short Stories, 1989, edited by Margaret Atwood.

Doerr donated her papers to Stanford University. She was unable to finish an envisioned autobiography because of failing eyesight and the increasing frailties of old age. Doerr died in her Pasadena home on November 24, 2002. Her small body of work continues to delight readers intrigued by the tensions between ethnic groups and by the respect and affection which can eliminate them.


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