Paula Becker is a staff historian for HistoryLink.org, an online encyclopedia of Washington state history, where she’s written essays on everything from the 1909 woman’s suffrage efforts to the dance marathon craze of the 1920’s and 30’s. No one knows more about our world’s fairs; Becker co-wrote “The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington's First World's Fair,” and “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World's Fair and Its Legacy”. She’s at work on a history of the life and career of Betty (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle) MacDonald, who lived in Becker’s Ravenna neighborhood.
Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
Paula Becker: The book on top is “Grave Matters: Excavating California's Buried Past” by Tony Platt. It’s an exploration into the looting and plundering of Native American graves in the vicinity of the author's home in Humboldt County during the early to mid-20th century. I am fascinated by the presence of the past in our current lives, and by the constancy of physical artifacts. This is a sad and fascinating exploration along those lines.
I don’t often read collections of letters, but I adore “The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters.” I’ve kept it on my nightstand for three years now, like someone might keep a bible. Edited by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, it’s as thick as “War and Peace”.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin. I found this book incredibly moving. It is set in the area around Wenatchee and spans the late 19th through middle 20th century. What I found most remarkable was Coplin's ability to describe time — its passage, its weight, the implications behind what time changes and what remains unchanged by time — from a deep, rooted, solid place. Many writers deal with time's ephemeral qualities, but Coplin handles time from a completely different place. I think she is truly gifted. This is her first book, and I am eager to see what she tackles next.
Did you come to your job at HistoryLink as a writer, a historian?
When Walt Crowley, Marie McCaffrey and Paul Dorpat launched HistoryLink in 1999, they wanted writers who could approach documenting history from a sort of engaged, journalistic perspective. I began writing for the site in 2001, and I have been a staff historian since 2005. I came to the job as a writer, but also as someone who relishes all aspects of the research process. As satisfying as it is to produce a finished piece of work, for me the research is the candy.
Was co-authoring “The Future Remembered” like going back in time for you?
As much as I love the idea of going back in time, researching “The Future Remembered” was more like spelunking. I was born in 1963, about seven months after the Seattle World's Fair closed. The research process was totally fascinating because I learned so much about exactly the moment in time when I hit the planet. It was a strange experience that made me reexamine many assumptions I guess I'd formed in childhood. But the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition book — that was time travel. There were no archival records for that fair, so I had to rely heavily on reading through old newspapers.
Any books you’d recommend about our regional/local history?
I really do think HistoryLink.org is the first stop for reading about our state. We have over 6000 fully sourced essays on all aspects of Washington's history — from Ice Age floods to recent events.
There are gorgeous books about so many aspects of Seattle's history; we benefit from a robust community of writer-historians. A few of my favorites are Nile Thompson and Carolyn Marr’s “Built For Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000”; Caroline T. Swope, “Classic Houses Of Seattle, High Style to Vernacular, 1870-1950”; Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason, “The Arts And Crafts Movement In The Pacific Northwest”; Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, editor, “Shaping Seattle Architecture”; Walt Crowley, “Rites Of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties In Seattle”; Monica Sone, “Nisei Daughter”; and Paul Dorpat's three collections of his Seattle Times “Now And Then” columns, which are fabulous for newcomers because they help build a visual matrix of Seattle's historic built environment.
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