August 11, 2014

The “Real” Indian Shirt Story


I’d always intended to post an article someday about the connection between my Northwest novel and the original White-Pioneers-Meet-American-Indians story from the Bigelow House Museum in Olympia. I never dreamed I would post it as a video. But here it is—and it’s fun: Washington State Historical Society Program – The Indian Shirt Story.

If you’d prefer to watch me read and sign books in person, come on along to one of my author events scheduled for fall. I’d love to see you there.

Shoalwater Tribal Library (Tokeland, WA) September 18, 2014 at 4:30 pm

Cooper Point Village Book Club (Olympia, WA) October 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Orca Books (Olympia, WA) October 24, 2014 at 7:00 pm




December 15, 2013

The “German” Pickle Ornament




Germany has given us some first-rate Christmas traditions. The Christmas tree, for starters. The advent calendar. The gingerbread house.

It did not, I am quite certain, give us the Christmas pickle.

“I see the pickle!” my mother’s next-door-neighbor announced when she came to admire my mother’s tree.

“Heather bought that,” my mom replied, completely missing the reference. This is a solid clue, by the way: a woman who has celebrated well over eighty Christmases—someone whose father’s parents emigrated from Germany—but who is totally unfamiliar with the German pickle tradition. I’d never heard of it, either, at the time I bought her the ornament. I just liked the green color, and the fat, bumpy, vegetable absurdity of a cucumber on the Christmas tree. (more…)

November 24, 2013

God Save the Beets


By special request—a Thanksgiving essay written years ago and reprinted more times than any other article I ever published. It’s slightly historic itself now, but still fun.

The only time I ever missed an American Thanksgiving dinner was while I was living in England on a study-abroad term in college. That year my landlady served up sausages and peas as if it were any other Thursday, and her husband sagely observed that if I wanted Yankee holidays, I should have stayed in America.  (more…)

October 15, 2013

John Day Fossil Beds


I’m not supposed to admit this, but there was a moment during my visit to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument—as the trail petered out unexpectedly in an eerie blue landscape of columns and spires, where nothing but scattered tufts of grass looked even slightly familiar—when I thought, a little uneasily, of the classic cult cowboy/dinosaur film The Valley of Gwangi. (more…)

August 27, 2013

Hats Off

75 years hats


My husband and I discovered no end of peculiar items while clearing the house where his parents lived for more than fifty years: an astonishing number of flashlights, almost all of them broken; an appliance designed exclusively for heating frozen pizzas; soap in the shape of George Washington from the American Bicentennial of 1976. One of the most unexpected things—and one of the few I kept for myself—was a 1951 magazine that celebrated the history of American ladies’ hats. (more…)

May 8, 2013

A History Day Judge Tells All




Not everyone is cut out for the task. “I just can’t do it,” my friend Maggie says. “They’ve all worked so hard and they all want to win. I can’t be the one to crush them.”

Maggie likes kids and history—a lot—but she’s never volunteered to judge at Washington History Day, a statewide contest for students held near Seattle each spring. Maybe I’m tougher, or meaner, or maybe I’m just a sucker for that look kids get when they start to grasp that history is—OMG!—interesting and maybe even important. Whatever the reason, last Saturday I got out of bed at daybreak, tanked myself up on coffee, and faced the delicate, serious task of crushing dreams at State History Day for the eighth consecutive year. (more…)

December 9, 2012

The Charles Dickens Birthday Dinner


Charles Dickens loved a party. He was perpetually hosting elaborate dinners for colleagues and friends in celebration of Twelfth Night or birthdays or having dashed off the last chapter of the next great English novel. The food and drink were boundless, as were the games and theatrics, the singing and country dancing, the conjuring tricks by the author himself, and the magic lantern shows.

“The profusion of figs, raisins, oranges, och! Such overloaded dessert,” complained Jayne Carlyle, the sharp wife of Thomas Carlyle, suggesting that their manic host didn’t always know when enough was enough. That doesn’t seem to have kept her from accepting more invitations. A lavish evening with Dickens was a soiree not to be missed.

So it only seemed right, in this year of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, to throw a Dickensian dinner in honor of the man who invented the Three Ghosts of Christmas, Aunt Betsy Trotwood, the Artful Dodger, and Miss Havisham. I thought I owed him that much at least, and maybe a whole lot more. (more…)

November 3, 2012

Color Me Uneasy


Abraham Lincoln made the cover of Time magazine last week. Well, technically it was actor Daniel Day Lewis portraying Lincoln, on a cover that simultaneously honored the 16th President and promoted Steven Spielberg’s new film about the man. The cover shot, solemn and pensive, was artfully printed in black-and-white, conjuring the look and feel of a photo from Lincoln’s own time.

But authentic photographs of the real Abraham Lincoln apparently were too boring. When it came to using historic images on the inside pages, Time commissioned Swedish photo editor Sanna Dullaway—a whiz with Photoshop special effects—to turn black-and-white into color. No somber Civil War pictures here. In Time’s re-imagined Library of Congress photographs, grass glows dill-pickle green underfoot and Lincoln sports a blue tie.

I do not fault Ms. Dullaway. She is entitled to her own artistic vision every bit as much as Spielberg is to his. I don’t think I would have minded if Time had published her doctored shots as a separate photo essay, along with a clear bit of narrative explaining what they were.

There is, however, an important distinction between artistic vision and history. By running “enhanced” historic photographs alongside a factual essay, editors at the news magazine thoroughly muddied that line. (more…)

October 10, 2012

Great Uncle Joseph Did Not Go Down on the Titanic

My friend Maggie has a problem.

Not a problem so much as a cousin—a distant, well-meaning cousin with a passion for genealogy. Maggie likes him. She wishes him well. But she wishes he’d stop insisting that someone in the family tree was rescued from the Titanic.

“It just isn’t true,” she tells me. Maggie’s pretty old school when it comes to documentation. She likes to see some kind of actual proof. “Two men share a name and that’s all.”

There was, in fact, a ship passenger with the same name as Maggie’s great uncle. This young man—we’ll call them both Joseph Shaw—was an Irish farmhand from Connemara, sailing third class to America to join his brother in New York.

No doubt he was handsome and full of life. We know he was good in a crisis. When the ship hit the iceberg and water gushed in, young Joseph stripped off his thick Aran sweater (the one his mother knitted for him before he left Ireland forever) and gallantly gave it to two shivering women about to be launched in a lifeboat.

The women survived—with the sweater. Young Joseph, alas, did not. (more…)