Before Sara Ackerman ’84 published her first novel in 2017, she devoted her thoughts to the reality she wanted to create. She spent time envisioning it, and wrote about it as if it were already happening, as if she were already a published author. At the time, she had stopped teaching at Kahuku High and online, and moved to Waimea on Hawai‘i Island. She wrote contemporary fiction and a historical novel on the side. Just as she became a licensed acupuncturist, she sold her novel, “Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers,” set in 1944 on Hawai‘i Island. “I wasn’t setting out to write historical fiction,” she said. “It was challenging. I had to really talk to everyone about the historical details and get them right.”
Ackerman’s publisher asked her to write another historical novel, so she worked on what became “The Lieutenant’s Nurse,” published in March. The story centers on a young nurse, Eva, who travels to Hawai‘i, partly to escape a secret back home. Instead, she ends up helping wounded soldiers after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ackerman researched her novel using texts sourced from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center store and via conversations with her parents, who were both children during the attack. The idea is also grounded in her grandmother’s journey to Honolulu on the Lurline ocean liner to meet the man who would become her husband. Ackerman sets the story on the Lurline for the first third, before moving the story around O‘ahu, including Tripler Army Medical Center and Pearl Harbor. “I really wanted to portray Pearl Harbor from a woman’s perspective, and offer a small slice of life of someone who experienced it firsthand, but who wasn’t a pilot or a sailor,” she said.
Though the protagonist, Eva, is not from Hawai‘i, through her, Ackerman portrays life as it happened for those who lived through the attack, alongside a love story and intrigue that hints at the many questions still to be explored about this pivotal event. “How did it happen without us knowing?” Ackerman said. “That’s still a question.”
Today Ackerman teaches part time at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, and is working on her next book, a third historical novel set in Volcano Village on Hawai‘i Island.
Thomas Cooper ’47
Silo –Barn Owl Press; 45 pages
At nearly 90 years old, Thomas Cooper’s ’47 curiosity continues to shape and inspire his life. He has been an international pharmaceutical marketing executive, a falconer, sailplane flight instructor, Balinese art expert and author, most recently of “Silo: Redwood Towers of California’s Sonoma and Marin Counties,” a companion to his 2011 book, “Tankhouse: California’s Redwood Water Towers from a Bygone Era.”
“I like to write, and when I get interested in something, I tend to pursue it,” Cooper said. “If it turns out to be a major interest, I’ll maybe write a book about it.” This was also his process for two books he penned on Balinese art, “The Folk Art of Bali,” with friend Joseph Fischer in 1998, and “Sacred Painting in Bali” in 2006. Cooper fell into Balinese art accidentally while collecting carpets, much as he fell into researching redwood tankhouses one day while riding his bike.
“They looked curious to me, and I couldn’t figure out what in the world they were,” Cooper said of the water towers often built with access to adjoining residences. After talking to owners and researching, he eventually published a book on these agricultural water delivery systems. It wasn’t long before he began seeing another kind of peculiar redwood structure around northern Marin and western Sonoma counties. Again, he took pictures and talked to the owners, and after researching these late 19th-century grain silos, Cooper realized it was a topic no one had formally documented.
So the man now known around his home in Santa Rosa as “Tankhouse Tom” knew he could write the first book on this long-forgotten art. “I knew that they were sort of extinct. These are fossils,” he said of the towers. “You never know who built them, because in those days, they didn’t have to register and get permits. It was very seldom that I learned who the original owner was.”
Both books follow Cooper’s journey of discovery to determine the purpose and origin of these structures, along with color photographs of what could be the last 23 of them.
Jean Wong ’58
Hurtling Jade and Other Tales of Personal Folly –Li-Jean Press; 166 pages
Writing stories happened by chance for Jean Wong ’58. She spent 40 years working as an educator at the Old Adobe School in Sonoma, California, where she later became director. She pursued her passion for music, playing piano and giving community talks. But a new door of creativity opened 10 years ago when Wong decided to join a local writers group. “I thought, well, write what you know,” Wong said. “And I found myself with this big collection of stories, some about childhood and some about things that happened to me as an adult. There were a lot about my family.”
She began sending these stories to publications like Vintage Voices and Tiny Lights, who accepted them, and soon became the first-place winner of the Redwood Writers’ short story contest. Other stories were produced as plays. “I thought I had a reasonably interesting life, but I just got this terrific feedback from people,” Wong said. “I thought, I’d better get this book out because if I don’t do it now, I won’t do it.”
Her candid life stories are now together in “Hurtling Jade and Other Tales of Personal Folly,” a memoir she describes as autobiographical fiction. “Most of it is true, but because of my tendency to exaggerate, I want to call it that,” Wong said. Instead of structuring the stories in typical chronological order, the tales instead travel in time to illuminate different aspects of Wong’s life inside themes of confusion, folly, luck, insight and wonder. “It’s about a journey of becoming a person and becoming a grown-up,” she said. “Luck is always an element, because you could really get into a lot of trouble in your folly, but you often get saved by luck.”
Wong’s voice and storytelling draw readers in, beginning with the first tale about her childhood clubhouse in Kaimuki. Some stories are quirky and funny, such as when she accidentally visits a clothing-optional spa for the rich and famous, and others intimate, like those that explore her relationship with her father and friendship with Nancy, a Punahou classmate. And for those who think they already know Wong well, the stories can uncover different sides of her, while also documenting a lifetime of memories.
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