California Studies Association

The latest news, events, and perspectives from the CSA

Jim Houston, Past Recipient of the CSA Carey McWilliams Award, Dies

1 Comment

james-houston-obit1

The CSA notes the passing of a friend and colleague, James Houston. The following article appeared in the SF Chronicle on Friday, April 24.


In one of Mr. Houston’s most lauded novels, 2001’s “Snow Mountain Passage,” he wrote poignantly of the Donner Party’s famous deadly journey through the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47, focusing particularly on one family’s survival to become California pioneers.

So it was only fitting that when Mr. Houston knew cancer was about to claim him, he asked that his final hours be spent in his Santa Cruz home – a home that, years before, had been the place where Patty Reed Lewis, a member of that same Donner Party family he wrote about, spent her final hours as well.

“Jim had a really strong link to that place, and it was very special that he made it back there for his passing,” said Santa Cruz writer Geoffrey Dunn, a longtime friend. “He got to die there surrounded by family and friends.”

And, most fittingly, history.

Mr. Houston died April 16 at age 75.

For the past 40 years, he has been considered one of the foremost chroniclers – in both fiction and nonfiction – of the heartbeat and zeitgeist of America west of the Rockies, and its link to Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific Rim.

“Farewell to Manzanar,” the book he wrote with wife Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston in 1973, has become a staple of school reading lists. It chronicles Wakatsuki Houston’s wrenching time in the Manzanar Japanese American internment camp east of the Sierra during World War II. The book earned the couple the Humanitas Prize and opened people’s eyes to a view of the camps that they had not known before.

“Californians: Searching for the Golden State,” Mr. Houston’s account of traveling the state to understand it, and “Continental Drift,” his novel about a family living above the San Andreas Fault, helped portray the mind-set of California as few other works have. Similar insights came in his explorations of the Pacific Rim in the nonfiction “In the Ring of Fire” as well as his documentary films about Hawaii including, “The Hawaiian Way.”

Among Mr. Houston’s many commendations were two American Book Awards and an Emmy nomination for the film version of “Manzanar.”

Born and reared in San Francisco, Mr. Houston met his wife while earning a bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts at San Jose State in 1956 – an interest he continued to develop all his life as he played guitar in local folk and bluegrass bands. After serving three years in the U.S. Air Force, he earned a master’s degree in American literature at Stanford University, where he studied with Western writer Wallace Stegner.

As a teacher over the past 40 years at many campuses, including Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State, Mr. Houston also helped nurture generations of writers. He brought the same nurturing approach to raising his children, in a very Western way.

“My dad taught me so many things that in retrospect I see prepared me to go out into the world and be independent,” said his daughter, Corinne Houston of Santa Cruz. “He showed me how to fix a flat, how to set a gopher trap in an organic garden … that’s the way he was. Very hands-on. He wanted me to be self-sufficient.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Houston is survived by a son and another daughter, Joshua Houston of Honolulu and Gabrielle Houston Neville of Santa Cruz.

Services will be Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Chaminade Resort, Santa Cruz, 1 Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz. Memorial contributions can be sent to: Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, P.O. Box 1416, Nevada City, CA 95959.

E-mail Kevin Fagan at kfagan@sfchronicle.com.

One thought on “Jim Houston, Past Recipient of the CSA Carey McWilliams Award, Dies

  1. Excellent site, keep up the good work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s