Helene Gabel Ryan: Adventurer, activist and author

An adventure wrongly considered is an inconvenience. An inconvenience rightly considered is an adventure," says Tadashi Nakaya-ma, a character in Helene Gabel Ryan's novel "Hakujin."

Ryan, a longtime Wallingford resident, could have said that herself. She has had many adventures in her 88 years - from growing up in Seattle during the Depression and World War II eras to babysitting gorillas at the Woodland Park Zoo.

She marched against the Vietnam War and for the Pike Place Market and was a mainstay of the Wallingford Community Council for many years.

Wartime prejudice

Ryan began the novel when she was in her 60s. Its title, "Hakujin," is a Japanese term for a white person.

Set in Seattle during World War II, the book tells the story of 18-year-old Robin Mueller. She lived at 29th Avenue and Yesler Way in Leschi with her family and, like the author, graduated from Garfield High School.

Her friendship with Kiko Naka-yama and her twin brother, Tadashi, forms the core of the novel. The book follows the experience of the Japanese before and after the evacuation and how life changed for the young women and the young men they loved during the war.

An important theme of the novel, according to Ryan, is that of equal opportunities for women.

Born just before women received the right to vote, Ryan said her generation "won the right to work because of the war."

In the book, Robin goes to work as a secretary at the War Labor Board in Seattle. This was based on a job that Ryan held during the war in which she doubled her salary within one year.

Robin, a Caucasian whose best friend and first love are both Japanese, learns firsthand about prejudice when her Japanese friends are evacuated to internment camps.

Speaking at her home, Ryan offers a blunt comment on this topic: "There were greedy people who wanted to profit from the Japanese people's property. The Canadian government may have been harder on their people than the U.S. They sold the property of the Japanese residents, cheaply, and then charged them a fee for the service!"

The pioneering spirit

Ryan said she started writing when she was 10 years old. Over the years, she wrote in many journals, beginning in the 1930s. "I have them all," she said.

These were a great source of material for her book, she added.

Her interest in Northwest history was kindled by her grandfather, Jacob Anthes. At age 15, Anthes, a German immigrant, was too young to file a homestead claim on Whidbey Island, so he purchased 120 acres for $100 instead.

His purchase later became the core of the town of Langley, and he is known as the "father of Langley," according to the genealogy website at www.usgennet.org/usa/wa/county/island.

Ryan created Anthes Press to self-publish her book after her first choice of publisher fell through. The book is illustrated with black-and-white photographs, some historic photos from Ryan's personal collection.

A longtime community member

Ryan has lived in the same house since 1953, where she raised two sons with her husband, who passed away several years ago.

She recalls that homes cost around $2,000 back then, and doctors advised people not to move to the neighborhood because it was an economically depressed, polluted area. The gas plant was operational, prior to the creation of the popular Gas Works Park.

Ryan said, "There are more trees now, but fewer families with children."

At one point, Ryan helped raise funds to add new trees to the community. She went door-to-door, asking for a dollar at a time. Her committee raised $4,400, which was a portion of the cost; the balance was provided by the city.

In addition to volunteer work, Ryan was employed at the Diesel Oil Sales Co., near Lake Union. Ryan would drop her two boys off at school, then climb on her 3-speed Raleigh Gazelle and ride to work.

Ryan, an early member of the Pacific Northwest Cycling Association, continued to ride with fellow members for more than 50 years.

As to whether there is another book in her future, Ryan said she hopes to live long enough to write one.[[In-content Ad]]