Men work at the Clark-Nickerson Lumber Co. in Everett in 1910. The mill produced lumber, shingles and lath. (Photo courtesy of Everett Public Library)

This new Pacific Northwest history textbook is a page turner

Opportunity, growth, conflict. It all happened here, historian David Jepsen says.

“Snohomish County is the history of the Pacific Northwest, writ small,” Jepsen said. “If you look at the struggle with the railroads, the growth of timber, the shingle-making industry, the port, the labor unrest — we can learn a lot about the region’s past just by looking to Snohomish County and Everett.”

Jepsen, who will give a talk at the Everett Public Library’s main branch on Saturday, Sept. 23, is the principal author of “Contested Boundaries: A New Pacific Northwest History,” the first new Northwest history textbook published in nearly three decades.

If the words “history textbook” give you hives, you’re exactly the kind of person Jepsen wants to win over. Rather than reciting names and dates, he and co-author Dave Norberg took a storytelling approach to their book. Chapters reveal colorful anecdotes from Northwest history that work in tandem with traditional facts, such as the name of Capt. George Vancouver’s ship or the year women won the right to vote in Washington.

As an instructor at Tacoma Community College, Jepsen struggled to find a modern textbook that would hold students’ interest. His informal survey of history teachers around the region found that most were patching their courses together without a textbook rather than using the longtime standard on the topic, Carlos Schwantes’s “The Pacific Northwest,” in which Northwest history begins with the arrival of European settlers and ends in 1987.

So when Jepsen couldn’t find the book he wanted, he teamed with co-author Dave Norberg to write it. But Jepsen and Norberg had no interest in writing a traditional text.

“Students hate texts — they’re boring,” Jepsen said. “Their biggest sin is that they don’t inspire. It’s the first history book that students read, and too often it’s their last. We wanted to create a book that would inspire them to read further.”

Their book would include events that students could remember — even students born in the 21st century; it would address conflicts based on race, religion and other societal issues; and, above all, it would tell stories.

“Any good history instructor worth his weight in chalk will tell you that students love stories,” Jepsen said. “So let’s write stories. Let’s capture them that way. Let’s entertain them as well as inform them.”

The stories in “Contested Boundaries” are tied together by themes of contest and exclusion — of the societal boundaries that determine people’s ability to participate and succeed.

“We’re not just talking about the exclusion of people of color,” Jepsen said. “You can look at women vying for equality in the workplace or wanting to earn the vote. You could look at it in terms of exclusion of common laborers who faced low pay and dangerous working conditions. There was the LGBT movement in the Northwest in the ’60s and ’70s, and homophobia is a kind of exclusion. The names have changed, the colors have changed. Now it’s transgender people, or it’s Muslims.”

At the Everett library, Jepsen plans to discuss a historical event that occurred on June 5, 1792, close to what is now the city’s waterfront. That’s where Vancouver claimed Puget Sound for England as a birthday present for King George III, while the Native people — probably from the Snohomish tribe — watched from their canoes.

“It’s what I call a ‘holy crap’ moment in history,” he said. “Given that Vancouver was the first European to venture south into the Sound, it’s likely that the Snohomish were seeing these odd strangers for the first time. What was going through their minds as they watched these impossibly large warships?”

Norberg, co-author and an instructor at Green River College in Auburn, says those who attend the library event will get a taste of the same storytelling approach that animates the book.

“David is quite personable and outgoing, and has a real passion and enthusiasm for this stuff. He enjoys talking about it,” Norberg said.

“I would expect them to find it informative, but they will also hear entertaining and engaging explanations of our region’s past.”

If you go

David Jepsen will discuss “Contested Boundaries” from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Everett Public Library Auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave., Everett. Admission is free.

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