Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Oil City, Venango County
Although born in Oil City, Van der Veer spent most of her life living on a farm in the foothills of San Diego. Many of her writings deal with farm life and protecting the natural world that she loved.
Judy Van der Veer, born in 1912, moved to southern California at an early age with her family. Her novels, poetry, and articles consist of semi-autobiographical narratives about her living on the family ranch with various animals. Despite her light-hearted approach to storytelling, her works lack sentimentality while still retaining a sense of charm and wonder in rural life, wherein her animals become characters in taking on personalities of their own. She died in 1982.
Born in Oil City, Pennsylvania, on October 17, 1912, Judy Van der Veer was the daughter of Tunis Herbert and Alice (Case) Van der Veer. The family moved west in 1919, to a 240-acre ranch by Ramona, California near San Diego. Van der Veer began writing as a child after she broke her leg at the ranch. Her father gave her paper and a pen, and she began writing poems, dropping out of high school as she gained a greater appreciation for ranch work and the wilderness surrounding her.
She published her first book, The River Pasture (1936), while still in her early 20s. From then on, Van der Veer would contribute entertaining stories about many of the Ramona ranch’s animals to the Christian Science Monitor, eventually earning $100 per piece. Characters in her story included those such as Wallace the pig, named after a cowboy friend of hers, and a donkey named Domingo, who wandered onto her property. She would name the inherited ranch in Ramona “My Valley in the Sky” after the 1969 book of the same name. Her subjects in poetry and fiction dealt with the San Diego backcountry, its animals, and forest scenes, and her works included books for children and volumes of poetry about country life. “I don’t write for any particular age group, but my books seem to appeal to children and pre-teens,” she claims in a 1969 interview, reports ThePhiladelphia Inquirer. “Eighty percent of the city people should not be allowed outside of the city limits,” she adds, noting that, “They get out in the country and try to make everything like the city.”
The River Pasture, the first of Van der Veer’s works about southern Californian rural life, deals with a girl rancher not unlike the author herself. It is “a book of wise and mellowed albeit fresh and unaffected beauty,” reads a New York Times review, and “It is full of the spirit of place and the love of living creatures; full of hard work and good sportsmanship, a deep sense of beauty and a keen vitality.” Brown Hills (1936) “is a book of farm work and of hard-pressing responsibility; it is a book which is not only filled with animals and their doings but with the toil and care which farm animals much have,” reviews K.W., saying that Van der Veer’s animals “are her business, not her luxury…It is this practical necessity and thought and work which give special tang and interest to this sensitive and delightfully written book.” Her 1940 book, November Grass, is about a girl named Agnes, the child of an Eastern mother and Western rancher, growing up in a California valley and reconciling her interest in art with her hard work on the ranch. The book’s main theme, writes reviewer Anita Moffet, “is the compassion which the girl Agnes learns to feel, not for her lover or herself, but for ‘all lives which are one life,’” and that the it “is more than a regional novel of truth, body and observation; it is the record of a universe as mirrored in a personality of unusual insight, awareness and poetic power.”
Commenting on A Few Happy Ones (1943), Edward Frank Allen writes that Van der Veer’s “schoolgirl approach is a cover-up for considerable sophistication. Her knowledge of ranch life is based on a somewhat rugged experience, but none of this has disillusioned her as to the charm of the outdoors, the lovability of animals and interest in human beings.” This book incorporates stories about various farm animals taken from Van der Veer’s real life, and though their light presentation is directed towards juvenile readers, A Few Happy Ones also portrays harrowing accidents, disasters, and other calamities associated with tough farm life. In Higher than the Arrow (1969), Franci Queri, a mission native girl who lives on a mountain in southern California, discovers her own natural talents and racial prejudice in a story that, according to reviewer John W. Connor, “reveals the meanness of human nature and one girl’s struggle to rise above the meanness.” Connor continues in describing that “The setting, characters, and plot are carefully interwoven about a single theme, man’s struggle to transcend the base qualities of his own nature.”
Judy Van der Veer told Contemporary Authors that “I live in the country with lots of animals and see lots of people. I hate to travel but have done some. I have more fun at home. I also hate all hunters, trappers and poisoners. I am interested in things like the importance of the individual, whether animal or human and like all races and/or colors of people, but hate people who destroy land and animals.”
She died of cancer at her home in Ramona, California, in November, 1982.
The River Pasture. New York: Longmans, Green, 1936.
Brown Hills. New York: Longmans, Green, 1936.
November Grass. Santa Carla, CA: Santa Carla U, 1940.
A Few Happy Ones. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1943.
Hold the Reign Free. San Carlos, CA: Golden Gate, 1966.
Wallace, the Wandering Pig. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.
Higher than the Arrow. San Carlos, CA: Golden Gate, 1969.
My Valley in the Sky. New York: Messner, 1969.
To the Rescue. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.
The Gray Mare’s Colts. San Carlos, CA: Golden Gate, 1971.
Long Trail for Francisco. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1974.
Allen, Edward Frank. “California Zoophile.” Rev. of A Few Happy Ones. New York Times 31 Oct. 1943: BR30.
Conner, John W. Rev. of Higher than the Arrow. The English Journal 58.9 (Dec. 1969): 1381.
“Deaths Elsewhere.” The Philadelphia Inquirer 25 Nov. 1982: D15.