Journal of the San Juan Islands


I'm on the Women's side

Journal of the San Juans Editor
July 30, 2013 · Updated 9:49 AM

For the past 20 years, Karen Haas, the former music teacher turned storyteller has toured the Pacific Northwest, as well as other parts of the country, as the star of a one-woman “living history’ program. / Contributed photo

It takes a particular kind of person to notice that the hairstyle of Nicole Kidman’s character, Ada, in the movie “Cold Mountain”, is not always quite right.

And not just a person with a keen eye for the evolution of women’s hairstyles, but one who knows her history, too.

That profile fits Karen Haas to a tee.

“Great movie, bad hair,” Haas said of the civil-war era film. “(Her hair) should have been up.”

An attention to historical accuracy is much more than just a passing fancy for Haas. It’s a way of life.

Karen HaasFor the past 20 years the former music teacher turned storyteller has toured the Pacific Northwest, as well as other parts of the country, as the star of a one-woman “living history’ program, in which she embodies, portrays and brings to life the unique experience and insights of no less than 15 different characters, several of whom, such as Narcissa Whitman, Abby Williams Hill and Thea Foss (yes, matriarch of the Foss Maritime empire) left an indelible mark on history and the landscape.

Oh yeah, she’s also honed about a dozen different accents to give each character, and an audience, even that much more of an authentic touch. It requires a good deal of homework, said Haas, who pores over diaries, letters and history books to zero in on the essence of each character.

“I read as much as I can so I can get into their head,” she said. “If I’m going to portray these women, I think I owe it to them. Then I have to figure out the ‘voice’.”

Come Saturday, Haas will give voice to six different female personas and one “composite” character as part of a living history presentation at San Juan Island Library entitled, “I’m Always on the Women’s Side -- Vignettes of the Civil War.” The title comes from the words of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose diary entries and letters were heavily featured in the groundbreaking and award-winning documentary about the civil war by Ken Burns.

The presentation is part of San Juan Island National Historical Park’s ongoing summer program, “Connections: The Far West and Civil War”, which explores relationships between the American Civil War, the San Juan Islands and the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to a grant from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the presentation is free. It begins at 7 p.m.

Karen HaasBorn and raised in Chicago, Haas, 55, said that she’s always been fond of history and, perhaps equally important, had a love for storytelling as well, thanks in large part to her father.

“It’s always been part of me,” she said. “My dad told these ‘Shaggy Dog’ stories that could stretch out for over two or three days.”

She graduated from Drake University with a degree in music education, gravitated out west, and now lives in Tacoma with her husband, Patrick. Having participated in 14 of the 15 annual Encampments at English Camp, the couple are at home on San Juan Island. In fact, the two were named “Park Volunteers of the Year” by San Juan Island National Historical Park in 2012.

In times of war, history books often focus on battles, combatants and the outcome of military campaigns. The effect that war may have on a city, a community or on the home front, and on women who are left behind to fend for themselves, can be overlooked. Through her living history programs, Haas strives to ensure that women’s voices, and their stories, such as those of Chestnut, Kate Cummings and Cornelia Peake McDonald, are heard.

“We’re all a product of our past,” she said. “If we don’t understand the past, how can we know who we are.”


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