James D. Houston, Chronicler of a Diverse California, Dies at 75

April 18, 2009
James D. Houston, Chronicler of a Diverse California, Dies at 75

James D. Houston, who captured the promise, the harshness and the sheer beauty of California in novels like “Continental Drift” and “Snow Mountain Passage” and in nonfiction works like “Farewell to Manzanar,” about a World War II internment camp for the Japanese, died on Thursday at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 75.

The cause was complications of lymphoma, said his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston.

Mr. Houston lived his entire life in California, most of it in Santa Cruz. The state provided the setting for nearly all his novels and the material for the nonfiction work “Californians: Searching for the Golden State,” and Mr. Houston evoked, with pinpoint precision, its redwood forests, farms and wild coastline, as well as its restless population of faddists and dreamers.

He was just as familiar with Hawaii. A passion for that state and its culture was born when his father, after being stationed there with the Navy, brought home a ukulele and a steel guitar, and Mr. Houston later explored Hawaii in several novels and in nonfiction works on surfing and Hawaiian music.

James Dudley Houston was born in San Francisco, where his parents had migrated from Quanah, Tex., a small town near the Texas panhandle. Their story kindled an interest in treks and quests that intensified when he met his future wife, whose family had immigrated to California from Japan.

His lifelong inquiry extended from his early novel “A Native Son of the Golden West” (1971), about California surfers in Hawaii, to “Bird of Another Heaven” (2007), a historical novel about a half-Indian, half-Hawaiian California woman who becomes the consort of the last king of Hawaii.

Mr. Houston earned a bachelor’s degree in drama at San Jose State University in 1956 and the next year married Ms. Wakatsuki, a fellow student and, later, his collaborator on “Farewell to Manzanar” (1974), which described where she had been interned during the war. In addition to his wife, he is survived by their three children: Joshua, of Honolulu, and Corinne Houston Traugott and Gabrielle Houston Neville, both of Santa Cruz.

After three years in the Air Force as an information officer with a NATO tactical bomber unit in Britain, Mr. Houston received a master’s degree in American literature at Stanford University in 1962. He had begun writing stories while in the Air Force and in 1968 published his first novel, “Between Battles,” about a young pilot at a NATO air station in Britain.

With his second novel, “Gig” (1969), about a jazz pianist toiling in a California roadhouse, Mr. Houston found his footing, and his setting.

In various guises California would play the lead role in Mr. Houston’s work, notably in his best-known novels, “Continental Drift” (1978), about the shadow cast when a son returns to the family ranch from Vietnam, and “Snow Mountain Passage” (2001), a novel about a family traveling with the Donner Party.

Off and on, Mr. Houston earned his living playing and teaching guitar. His interest in Hawaiian music led him to write “Hawaiian Son” (2004), about the ukulele virtuoso Eddie Kamae. He also blended travel, anthropology and history in books like “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport” (1966), written with Ben R. Finney; “In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey” (1997); and “Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea: A California Notebook” (2008).

Mr. Houston told The Bloomsbury Review in 2007 that his natural environment was “the valleys and ridges and towns and waterways between Mendocino and Point Conception.” Although he ventured farther afield in fiction and nonfiction, he regarded much of his home state with the same astonished eye as the rest of the country.

“As a phenomenon, as a certain kind of sociopolitical force and laboratory, it’s endlessly compelling to contemplate and write about,” he said. “But as a place to call home and identify with, there’s really too much of it.” He added, “The human nervous system wasn’t designed to embrace something as unwieldy and various as the entire state of California.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 21, 2009
Because of an editing error, an obituary on Saturday about the California writer James D. Houston misidentified the site of the Texas town, Quanah, where his parents lived before moving to San Francisco, where Mr. Houston was born. It is near the Texas panhandle, not the Oklahoma panhandle.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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