Authors examine state history in new exhibit


By John Larson –


Black and white image of the Asarco smelter in Ruston, May 14, 1913. The photo shows the smoke stack on the left and Puget Sound on the right with the town of Ruston in the distance.
Credit: WSHS

Washington State Historical Society invited creative writers into a building filled with tens of thousands of historic artifacts and select a few for a new exhibit. The result is “A Thousand Words’ Worth: Washington Authors Tell Stories With Objects.” It is on display through Aug. 24.

A group of popular authors with diverse voices from around the state were asked to go through the artifacts, ephemera and images and select items that hold significance and help tell a story. These objects are placed alongside works published years ago, as well as newly-inspired writing. Some of the 13 authors are living. In cases where the author is deceased, an interpreter has written something to accompany the items.

“We want to actively use our collections to engage communities with history in unique and accessible ways,” said Audience Engagement Director Mary Mikel Stump.

Octavia E. Butler is one of the writers no longer with us, having died in 2006. She was a science fiction. Sales of her books have increased since her passing. Her novel “Dawn” is being developed for television.

A touring opera is based on her book “Parable of the Sower.” A passage from that novel describes the survival kit a young girl is assembling in the year 2025. A case includes items listed in this passage.

Jamie Ford is famous for his debut novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” A case of items from the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 is next to a piece of his writing. One is a small flag commemorating Taft Day on Sept. 30 of that year. William Howard Taft was president of the United States at the time.

Shawn Wong examines menus from Chinese restaurants, such as one from Henry Wong’s Café from 1947. It was located downtown on South 12thStreet. Two others are from Seattle restaurants, with another from one in Yakima. Wong, now a professor at the University of Washington, wrote an essay about how Chinese food became somewhat Americanized in this country. Two items refer to the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the past, such as the expulsion of Chinese residents of Tacoma in 1885 and an incident in which they were marched to the docks in Seattle the following year.

The late science fiction author Frank Herbert, a Tacoma native, has a case with his son Brian Hebert. It examines the industrial wasteland of the Asarco copper smelter in Ruston and this impact it had on the elder Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, “Dune.” It includes photos of the smelter from 1910-15 and audio of an interview done with him for a biography that was never published.

John Okada was born in 1923 and died at the age of 47. He is known for his novel “No No Boy,” based upon the experiences of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and their re-integration into society after the war. Frank Abe, who worked as a reporter for KIRO radio and served as communications director for two King County executives, wrote a piece to accompany this case. It includes a poster from 1942, informing residents of Japanese descent to report to Auburn High School to begin the relocation process.

David Guterson, author of the book “Snow Falling on Cedars,” is featured in a case with mountain climbing equipment.

Two Tacoma-area women, Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring, should be well known to local residents. They are known for the letterpress broadsides they have produced since 2008. They offer an essay on famous feminists. Items in their case include a pair of tennis shoes owned by U.S. Senator Patty Murray and a girl’s letterman jacket from Olympia High School from the late 1980s.

Charles Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, wrote an essay about the late artist Jacob Lawrence and George Washington Bush, an early black settler in this state. It includes two paintings from Lawrence’s series on Bush.

The museum has several events planned in conjunction with the new exhibit. “Family Saturdays at the History Museum: Make Your Own Book” will be on May 11 from 1-3 p.m. “Scholarly Selections: From Emily Dickinson to Lucinda Williams” will be on May 16 from 6:30-8 p.m.


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