Sunshine Preferred, by Anne Ellis

Review by Martha Quillen

Mountain Life – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Sunshine Preferred
by Anne Ellis
Originally published in 1934
First Bison Book printing 1984
University of Nebraska Press
ISBN 0-8032-1810-9

SUNSHINE PREFERRED tells the story of what happened to author Anne Ellis after the exploits she shares in her more famous books, Life of an Ordinary Woman and Plain Anne Ellis. Ellis was born in 1875 and raised in Bonanza, and in her first two books she writes about her life as a girl, a young wife, a mother, and a widow.

Much of Ellis’s life was marked by poverty and a harrowing hand-to-mouth existence, but she survives to tell about it. And she reveals much about life in the early days of Central Colorado in the telling.

Sunshine Preferred, however, is about the author’s life while she wrote those first two books, and although it opens in Colorado, most of the narrative is about other places.

Sunshine starts in the 1920s, when Ellis is the Treasurer of Saguache County. Shortly after her reelection, she gets ill and is sent to a hospital.

Although Ellis returns to Saguache for a short time, she never fully recovers, and this last book is about her search for a cure. Ellis writes about going in and out of sanitariums, and trying numerous remedies in New Mexico, Arizona and California, and of the people there, and the places themselves.

There’s some really interesting descriptions of Albuquerque, which apparently was teeming with sanitariums in the ’20s: “…almost every person in Albuquerque comes there in the first place for his own health or that of some member of his family. This naturally makes them kind, understanding, and unusually helpful.”

Strangely, Ellis also gives a fairly good picture of the New Mexico that attracted Georgia O’Keeffe and other artists — a colorful, multicultural, multilingual home to jewelers, potters, pueblos, kivas, historic Catholic churches, and Indian dances — even though she and her friends are generally too sick to go out in it.

Almost every time Ellis ventures forth she ends up totally bedridden — again. Although she’s diagnosed with asthma rather than the dreaded tuberculosis, at times she even lapses into critical condition. Thus Ellis decides to write a book because she can’t do much else. Then, when Ellis finally finishes her book, she waits, somewhat agonizingly, for the publishers to get back to her. And many do — with rejection slips.

As she does in all of her books, Ellis shares her wisdom and philosophy, which makes her work a little didactic in a fairly common, old-fashioned sort of way. (A lot of folksy, western columnists still embrace this style, part personal narrative, part friendly advice.) Ellis even leads her chapters with moral instructions:

“It’s what we ‘ain’t got,’ not what we have, that makes us happy. — A.E.”

“Some people think they are possessed of ideals when it’s only ideas. — A.E.”

For years Ellis lives with a combination of financial worries, chronic illness, and not knowing how she’s going to get by, but she tries to look at the bright side in Sunshine Preferred. For example, she credits her illness with making her a writer, and there are a lot of rather sugary entries — you meet the nicest people in sanitariums. Many of these character sketches are intriguing, and they forcefully reveal how young and hopeful many of the victims were, but they sound a bit like Oprah’s miracle stories — when there’s often no miracle in the picture.

THIS CHEERLEADING occasionally seems somewhat overdone in Ellis’s other two books, but it works better in the books where she’s young and has to rally for her children than it does when she’s surrounded by death and dying friends.

Even though Ellis always keeps a stiff upper lip and looks at the bright side, Sunshine Preferred can be a bit depressing. It might have worked better if Ellis had aimed for a maudlin, tear-jerking manuscript. But the book tends to be resolutely cheery — except when Ellis tells you about her illness: her good days, her bad days, her coughs, her collapses, and her relapses.

Unfortunately Ellis’s account of her illness doesn’t seem all that different from the accounts of other people telling you about their aches, pains, and operations. At first, you wish she’d get better, but she doesn’t, and she doesn’t, and she doesn’t.

And so — if you’re anything like me — by the middle of the book you start to think of Ellis as some kind of hypochondriac who enjoys going on and on about her illness — even though you know that she was really very ill. Ellis (1875 – 1938) died four years after the book was published. Therefore, as Sunshine progresses, you start to feel guilty for not being more sympathetic. But the narrative is just too light and jocular to inspire heartfelt sympathy.

And despite the author’s attempt at good cheer — or perhaps because of it — her illness tends to overwhelm everything else. When she finally gets her first book published, Ellis writes:

“January 15. This A.M. finds me going on a milk diet. I really feel too bad to enjoy my good luck, but if it weren’t for this luck life would be unbearable.

“January 17. Sick, so much that I fear — no, I will never fear death, only now it would be less welcome.

“The reason for the milk diet was that the publishers, I knew, would want a picture for the book. I was dreadfully thin and had no thought of appearing in a book that way. I understood that one could gain weight on milk, so, in spite of not liking it, and realizing that it is bad for asthma, on a milk diet I went.”

Sunshine Preferred isn’t a bad book, but The Life of an Ordinary Woman and Plain Anne Ellis are better, and they have the added attraction of being about Central Colorado, so I’d recommend reading them first. Then, if you’re fascinated by Ellis’s first two books and want more, get Sunshine. It finishes the story of Ellis’s life, and tells how she came to be a writer.

–Martha Quillen