Paper Doll Heroes
Robert J. Perry
Orinda resident Leslie Darwin O’Brien likes to play with paper dolls. And she would like kids to play with them, too, especially her collection Heroes of the West: African Americans Who Helped Shape History.
O’Brien’s book encourages children to punch out likenesses of her western heroes, dress them in cut-out period clothes, and position them in wilderness or cabin settings. The book was featured this spring in a black history collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“I like tactile learning tools,” says O’Brien, 43. She says that her own boys play with the dolls at home. “The kids are using them and becoming aware of history.”
O’Brien, who is related to Charles Darwin, is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. She attended Little Rock High School, one of the first public schools in the South to desegregate, and racial equality has “always been an issue” for her, she says.
During her research, O’Brien thought a lot about a woman named Nancy Gooch. One of O’Brien’s paper dolls depicts Gooch, a freed slave who worked in Coloma, California, as a laundress and who eventually saved enough money to buy her own children out of slavery.
“That still puts everything into perspective for me,” O’Brien says. “If I’m having a bad day, I just think of Nancy.”
Heroes of the West: African Americans Who Helped Shape History is available through www.africanamericanpaperdolls.com.