Book City: Paula Becker has Mrs. Piggle Wiggle on the brain

Paula Becker

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.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you? 

I deeply loved Jean Little's “Look Through My Window”, which I read first on a car trip between El Paso and Dallas when I was eight, and reread many, many times. It is about three girls, unlikely friends, who write poetry and hang out in the garret bedroom of the rambling old house. 

Marie Killilea's “Karen”, is a memoir of her daughter's childhood. Karen Kililea was born with cerebral palsy, and her mother's description of the family's dedication to helping her physically progress as far as she was possibly able to was very moving to me.  I adored Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books, a 13-book series set in the early 20th century that follows two best friends and their circle from kindergarten through marriage.  

As far as a book that influenced me, Franks Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carry's “Cheaper By The Dozen” introduced me to the idea of motion study. The Gilbreth parents, Frank and Lillian, were influential efficiency experts. I use Lillian GIlbreth's principals all the time. She was a brilliant, inspirational woman.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

There are two passages I think of all the time.  One is the opening line from “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras: "Very early in my life it was too late." 

The other is from Paul Bowles, in “The Sheltering Sky”: "Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.  How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless."

I’m struck by how you’ve called out a sense of time in nearly all your answers, from using it efficiently, to time travel, and the quotes above…

You’ve found my theme. I write about history, so I’m always thinking about time. It’s a powerful and evocative subject for me. I’m fascinated by the idea of physical artifacts passing through many hands, having their own history that is unknowable to us.

Do you have any favorite mystery titles, or favorites in another genre? 

I sometimes read fantasy, especially if there is a time travel component.  I really like Jack Finney's work, especially “Time And Again”, which constructs a very plausible method of traveling through time.  I like Connie Willis, especially her most recent two, “Blackout” and “All Clear.” I loved Audrey Niffenegger's “The Time Traveler's Wife”, especially the fact that Henry, the protagonist, is an archivist, since I spend so much time in research archives.

When and where do you settle down to read? To write?  

Like probably everyone, I read in bed. I rarely give myself the luxury of reading for pleasure during the day because when you work mostly from home you have to draw a hard line to keep yourself on task. I write mostly on a desktop computer standing up. I converted to a standing desk during the process of writing “The Future Remembered” and I don't think I'll ever go back to writing seated. It feels much healthier.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world? 

Two very different books: Patti Smith's “Just Kids,” which is a beautiful and pure look back at a complicated relationship in a complex time. And Andrew Solomon's “Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search For Identity.” He had me from the first lines: "There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads."

Tell us about the book you’re writing, and what got you interested in Betty MacDonald? 

I first became interested in Betty MacDonald when I realized that the neighborhood where I then lived, Ravenna, was actually a stone's throw from the house where Betty and her family lived when her daughters were growing up. I'd enjoyed the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series as a kid, although I hadn't loved Betty's gigantic hit, “The Egg And I.” After I made the Ravenna/Roosevelt neighborhood connection, I read Betty’s three later memoirs and was intrigued by her offbeat but heartfelt style and by what a great writer she was.

I sleuthed out the locations of all the houses Betty and her sister Mary Bard Jensen (who also wrote memoirs and the "Best Friends" juvenile series) lived in, and started writing about them for HistoryLink. I've worked on Betty's story in one way or another for about 12 years now, and I feel that I want to take on the story of her life and career in a sort of personally exploratory biography. 

I'm thinking a lot about autobiography/memoir as a genre — what it meant when Betty wrote in the 1940s and 1950s versus what it means now — and about what an enormously crazy enduring smash success “The Egg And I” was.  It came out right at the end of World War II, sold more than a million copies in hardback in less than a year and introduced Betty, her family and the Pacific Northwest to readers around the globe.  It has never officially been out of print — since 1945!  It was — she was — a true phenomenon.

What book do you plan to read next?  

Amanda Knox's memoir, “Waiting To Be Heard.”  I followed the story because she was from Seattle, and as a mother I was greatly moved by how steadfastly Amanda's parents devoted their lives to supporting her emotionally and psychologically through her entire incarceration.  

What Val’s Reading This Week: "Where’d You Go Bernadette?" is stylish, fast-paced and a bit bewildering plot-wise, especially when the action ends up in Antarctica. The author pokes relentlessly at Seattle parents, weather, high tech, even blackberries and erosion. Despite being on the list of several Book City interviewees, I only kept reading for the fun of its Seattle-centricity.

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