El Dorado's Wakamatsu Colony subject of new book

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3B

The tale of the Wakamatsu Colony is well-known in Japan, but obscure in California – though it took place right here.

Placerville poet Brigit Truex is making a small effort to change that.

Truex's book, "Strong as Silk," was published this month, telling the Wakamatsu story in an unusual combination of fiction and haiku.

In the late 1860s, a group of samurai-class men and women – losers in a Japanese civil war – established the colony in rural El Dorado County and tried to produce silk and tea. It was the first Japanese settlement in North America.

A few years ago, Truex came across a news article about the colony.

"I never heard this story," she said. "It just sort of caught my eye."

She began to write some poems and do some research to learn more about it.

Whether through bad planning, bad weather or sabotage, the colony had failed after a few years and its inhabitants scattered with hardly a trace.

"It fascinates me what happened to the descendants, because I could really find nothing," she said.

Japanese and Japanese Americans still make special trips to Gold Hill outside Placerville and venerate the grave of the one colonist who died and was buried there.

The site was recently purchased by the American River Conservancy, which plans to establish a historic park there.

When Truex took a poem about Wakamatsu to the Red Fox Poets, a group she meets with regularly, the poets liked it and urged her to write more on the colonists.

Among the Red Fox group is poet Taylor Graham, who put out her own historical poetry book in 2010 about Elihu Burritt, an ancestor.

While Graham's subject was a published author with an archive at a Connecticut university, Truex found less to work with.

The colonists left no published writings or diaries.

Based on a few historical clippings and artifacts, Truex worked to imagine how their life had been – coming to a strange place, the enthusiasm for the work, the failure of the project.

The book expresses this in poetry and fictional journal entries by the colonists.

"Hopefully, the reader gets the flavor of what it must have been like for this handful of people coming here at a very difficult time," Truex said.

Truex sent some of her work to a Southern California publisher, who not only liked it but said he wanted more.

Lummox Press published a 150-page paperback that mixes the poetry and prose to give a chronological account of the colony's rise and fall.

She sold some of her books last week at Sacramento's Day of Remembrance event recalling internment during World War II. Numerous people recognized the Wakamatsu story.

"Strong as Silk," $15, is available at Placerville News Company on Main Street in Placerville, where Truex will sign books March 17, beginning at 11 a.m.

It can also be purchased online at Amazon.com and www.lummoxpress.com.

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Read more articles by Carlos Alcalá

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