Local author James D. Houston to speak at UC Santa Cruz library event

Nearly 40 years ago local author James D. Houston moved into a house where a story was waiting for him. "My wife and I were just looking for a inexpensive place to live and it was just an empty house in Santa Cruz. At the time, I didn't know it had a story to tell," said Houston.

That story, about the experiences of the James Frazier Reed family who came to California with the Donner party, became his novel Snow Mountain Passage, which was hailed by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2001. Houston will read from Snow Mountain Passage and talk about the development of his novel and the Reed family's story in the context of the Donner party episode at the Friends of the University of California, Santa Cruz Library annual meeting on Wednesday, May 8, at 4:30 p.m. at the McHenry Library patio.

"The story came to me by osmosis, but I wasn't thinking of myself as someone who wrote history," said Houston. "So I just kept track of little trickles of information about the house on the side." Meanwhile, Houston occasionally taught creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and published six novels, including his prize-winning The Last Paradise, and Farewell to Manzanar, coauthored with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.

A dozen years ago those "trickles of information" became a torrent when Houston discovered, by chance, the keystone for his novel. While working on a local-history project he learned that James Frazier Reed's daughter, Patty Reed, had lived in his house on Schwan Lake in Santa Cruz from 1915 until her death in 1923.

He realized the view from his house was still similar to the view Patty Reed saw when she looked out over the lake to the beach and the bay beyond. He saw that some of the furnishing had been in the house since Patty Reed's time. So when Houston began writing the story to which his home had led him, he incorporated Patty Reed's memories as an older woman, sitting on her front porch, looking out on Monterey Bay.

In the four years Houston worked on Snow Mountain Passage, he spent hours doing research in Special Collections at McHenry Library. "Special Collections has some very important materials relating to this period of Western settlement," said Houston. "I was looking at a lot of primary materials, like photographs of Santa Cruz County, pioneer memoirs, accounts of wagon parties." His meticulous research paid off with evocative details throughout the novel, such as a description of the "double-decker Palace Car" wagon James Frazier Reed designed to transport his family from Illinois to California.

"When I finally sat down to try and find a way to tell the family's story," said Houston, "I began to hear Patty Reed's voice, as the elderly woman she'd been in the years she lived in my house. I wouldn't say it was an actual sound inside my head; rather, it was the distinct awareness of a certain way of speaking. And that was the day I began to write."