Friday, April 17, 2009
Author James Houston is dead
I just got the news that one of my favorite writers, James Houston, has died.
He came to international fame when he co-authored Farewell to Manzanar with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. The book, which is still read regularly in schools, told the story of her internment in a detention camp for Japanese-Americans in California’s Owens Valley during World War II.
His later work also explored aspects of California’s history, including the fantastic Snow Mountain Passage, a novel about the doomed Donner Party. Patty Reed, who survived the Donner Party’s ordeal, once occupied the home the Houstons lived in Santa Cruz. He also wrote extensively about Hawaii, a state he considered a second home.
The list of his awards is long, and included an American Book Award, a Humanitas Award, a Californiana Silver Medal from the Commonwealth Club, and an Emmy nomination. He was also invited to be a writer-in-residence at many prestigious places, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s villa in Bellagio, Italy.
I first got to know Houston when I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He was a long-time friend of Oakley and Barbara Hall, who co-founded the conference. Every summer, Houston would come up to Lake Tahoe and share his knowledge of fiction writing and the publication process with aspiring authors. He was tall and lanky and surprisingly elegant in his jeans and casual button-up shirts. Most important, he was accessible. He didn’t use his status as an accomplished author to set himself apart from people at the conference. He was generous and helpful.
He died Thursday at his home in Santa Cruz from complications from cancer.