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Exploring life in a place we know well
Jean Davies Okimoto is an award-winning author, retired psychotherapist and local Islander. She is also a dear friend. So writing about her new novel, “Walter’s Muse,” means I am not one to deliver an unbiased review.
Biased or unbiased, however, there are events, observations, descriptions and landmarks in “Walter’s Muse” that many in our community will easily recognize. Jean’s 20th book is all about life on an enchanting pastoral island in the middle of Puget Sound. It’s about life in a community brimming with quirky, generous, artistic and resourceful, one-of-a-kind characters. It’s about life on Vashon.
Walter, a famous children’s author and recovering alcoholic, is struggling to succeed in a changing marketplace when he discovers an unexpected muse in his neighbor Maggie, a retired librarian. This is not a match made in heaven, but it is a match made on Vashon, where kayaks and salmon-colored sunsets, rented ruminants and Island Elves, newcomers with bright ideas and inspiring Highway Haikus all play a role in the unfolding story.
While the places are mostly real, the characters are entirely fictitious. “I try to create believable people,” Jean said, “but nothing about the characters is based on anyone real except for Mickey Simila, who gave me permission to allow him to appear in a scene at the Burton Post Office. In a small community, the tricky part is that someone will think I’m writing about a particular person.”
Instead Jean writes from a depth of understanding about relationships and the inevitable stages of our human life cycle. Walter’s days as a successful author are behind him, and he must grapple with the hard truth of that loss. Jean sees his experience as a universal metaphor for aging.
“Even with normal aging, there’s a gradual diminishing of our abilities, … and we have to accept our limitations, begin to carve out what’s meaningful and think of ourselves in a new way. Hopefully, we gain in wisdom and that helps.”
Jean also writes with a desire to tell a story filled with hope and characters she enjoys. She knew that “Walter’s Muse,” the second in a trilogy beginning with “The Love Ceiling,” would be the kind of book she would like to read. “When I wrote ‘The Love Ceiling,’ there was a part of me still influenced by the marketplace, so some things were darker, more sensational. With ‘Walter’s Muse,’ I wanted the challenge of creating an unsensational story that could be fun, engaging and entertaining.”
That’s a challenge Jean meets with the opening scene in chapter one and continues to expand throughout the book. “I’m sometimes told my work is quiet, so as a kind of joke I thought I’d start with ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’” The fierce winds, downed power lines and broken branches Jean describes will no doubt resonate with Vashon residents. And then there’s Walter’s humorous quip about being environmentally savvy. Maggie discovers Walter buried under a pile of solar panels and a broken windmill. She is alarmed, while he dryly remarks, “It’s not easy being green.”
After the publication of “The Love Ceiling,” Jean’s editor suggested she write a series. Instead, she decided to pen this trilogy, where one character and the setting provide the through-line for all three books. Martha Jane Morrison, a 90-year-old painter, is that character. Vashon, naturally, is the setting. Jean admitted that sometimes she thinks of the Island as another central character.
When asked to describe that character, Jean replied, “Live and let live. Charmingly real with a spiritual side, too. Open-minded, beautiful and a little eccentric.”
— Juli Goetz Morser is a freelance writer who lives on Vashon.
Jean Davies Okimoto will read excerpts and talk about “Walter’s Muse” at the book’s release party at 6 p.m. Friday at the Vashon Bookshop.