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Sunday, June 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Kalakala' should enrich your love of Seattle icon

Seattle Times book editor

"Kalakala: Magnificent Vision Recaptured"


by Stephen J. Russell
Puget Sound Press, $39.95
Author appearance


Steven J. Russell will give a slide show and read from "Kalakala: Magnificent Vision Recaptured" at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lake Forest Park's Third Place Books, 206-366-3333.

"Kalakala: Magnificent Vision Recaptured" is a passionate history of the historic Puget Sound ferry that awaits an angel with several million dollars to restore it to silvery Art-Deco splendor.

The good news about "Kalakala" is this: Part I of this book is an exuberant, beautifully illustrated history of the vessel that amounted to a poor man's luxury liner in mid-20th-century Seattle. As a native landlocked Southerner, I never understood the hold the Kalakala exerts on native Puget Sounders until I read this book.

The bad news: The author, an unabashed supporter of the Kalakala's restoration, does not know when less is more. More (or less) about that later.

"Kalakala" begins with the history of the Peabody family, owners of the East Coast's Black Ball Line who moved west in the late 19th century and started a Puget Sound steamship and ferry line. In the 1930s, Alexander Peabody commissioned the Kalakala.

Russell crafts an entertaining, if occasionally overwrought, blow-by-blow history of the ship's development, its heyday in the 1930s and its workhorse years in the World War II effort, ferrying workers to and from the shipyards of Bremerton. The historical photos are an elegant counterpoint to the narrative. Well-laid-out and beautifully reproduced, they capture the magic of the Kalakala, lit as from within by our native oyster light.

"Many considered the elegant interior to be Captain Peabody's gift to the common man, woman and child who would otherwise be unable to afford such cultivated surroundings, especially at the height of the Depression," Russell writes. No kidding.

If only I could have sidled up at least once to the double horseshoe lunch counter, or eaten a $1 Thanksgiving dinner on the Kalakala in 1935, or danced to the music of Joe Bowen and his Flying Birds Orchestra in the luxurious forward observation room with the green-enameled walls (and the cream and green drapes). No detail is spared in Russell's loving spin on the Kalakala's spell.

If only he had spared some detail in Part II of the book, which recounts Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis' efforts to save the Kalakala.

The story of how Bevis liberated the Kalakala, relegated to processing fish, from a backwater bay of Kodiak Island is dramatic stuff. But it sinks from the weight of the detail devoted to every last exchange between Bevis and the Kodiak City Council and the various bureaucrats he wrestled in his successful attempt to float the Kalakala from Kodiak back to Seattle.

Misspellings — "Bill Jones took the reigns of the city council when he became city manager in September 1995" — are exasperating.

The bardic tone degenerates at times into near-parody: "In Alaska in the dead of winter, Bevis felt alone save for the companionship of his dog, Loosie, and his cat, Nightmare, who helped make living in the bait locker of the KALAKALA a little more tolerable. He was surrounded by indifference and outright resistance, and immobilized by circumstances beyond his control. But somehow he managed to ride out the storms of discouragement in the protected cove of his uncompromising vision and unwavering belief in himself." After riding out waves of this purple prose, I was mentally listing to starboard.

I will now take my own advice and shut up about Part II, because if you love the Kalakala, you will love this book. If you don't, read Part I anyway — it's a loving history of a time and era that — now I get it — deserves resurrection on the decks of a rejuvenated Kalakala.

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