By Jim Turner
Part One of Jake’s story followed him through grade school and college, his first professional editing job for Anchor Books, and finally his unexpected career turn working for the Natural History Press. From 1963 to 1970, Jake had the honor of working with quite a few leading scientists, among them Jacob Bronowski, Colin Turnbull, and Margaret Mead. With experience, he gained confidence in handling science topics and was especially drawn to anthropology.
In 1970, Jake had the opportunity to join the newly created Smithsonian magazine as scientific content editor. As with his previous job, he worked with fascinating writers and scientists, deepening his knowledge with every issue. By 1973, the magazine began getting 1/3-page ads and they needed some editorial matter to fill the page, so Jake volunteered to write a column about science-type things happening at the institution. He said, “The plan was I would write three and then if it worked we would hire some guy to write it. I wrote the first column, the editor published it, and I wrote the monthly column—‘Phenomena, Comment, and Notes’—for the next seven years” while working full time for Smithsonian. He wrote a column for Science from 1980-86, and then other magazines into the 90s.
Then came a major unexpected change in matters of heart and career. In 1973, while Jake was at the Smithsonian, he met Susanne Anderson, a well-known Washington D.C. photojournalist. David Brower, Susanne, and Friends of the Earth had just published Song of the Earth Spirit, a beautiful photo book about traditional Navajo life in Arizona. A friend introduced Susanne to Jake, and she visited him with the idea of using some of the book in Smithsonian. Jake said, “I found that the prose parts of the book were too short to make a magazine article, but I loved the book and her style of writing and photographing.” Jake suggested that she write an article about witchcraft on the Navajo reservation. After several trips back and forth, Susanne realized she was too uncomfortable to write about the topic. But every time she returned to Washington D.C., Jake would take her to lunch. “As it turned out,” Jake said, “we had lunch together so often that we fell in love,” and they married in 1975.
Susanne kept in touch with her friends in the Four Corners area, and a few years later Hopi Tribal Chairman Abbott Sekaquaptewa, authorized by the tribal council, invited Susanne to create a highly-illustrated book about the Hopi. Since the tribe had not permitted photography on their reservation since the turn of the century, this was a significant honor. Susanne asked him to help, and Jake said this was the main reason he retired from full-time editing at the ripe old age of 44. After eleven trips to the reservation over the next eight years, Harry N. Abrams published HOPI by Susanne and Jake Page in 1982, reprinted by Rio Nuevo Publishers in 2009. In producing this intimate portrait of the Hopi people, Jake said that Susanne “never took a photograph without the Hopis’ knowledge and I never asked a journalistic question. For three decades, many Hopi people have considered the book theirs.”
Soon after HOPI came out, Jake and Susanne were invited to a Congressional event celebrating Indian people. Jake said that then Navajo tribal president Peterson Zah rushed up, asked Susanne to sign his copy of HOPI, and asked her to do a book about the Navajo. When she replied that she had already written Song of the Earth Spirit about the Navajo, Mr. Zah said, “Yes but we want one that’s bigger.” In 1995, Harry N. Abrams published NAVAJO, a beautifully illustrated book about Navajo culture and spirituality, reprinted by Rio Nuevo Publishers in 2010. By this time, the Pages had long since moved to New Mexico.
By middle age, Jake had been a successful editor for a major publisher, editor and writer for several leading magazines, and now co-author of two beautiful books on the Hopi and Navajo people. And if that wasn’t enough of a legacy, when he left the Smithsonian he became an author of popular detective novels. According to Jake, he left the magazine to go freelance because he and Susanne were ready to write the Hopi book, but also because he had “some books and magazine pieces in mind.” His first attempt at fiction found a publisher, got into print, and then “sank without a ripple.” The next two did okay. One had the fascinating plot of Native Americans repelling a German invasion of southern Arizona in World War II.
Once he and Susanne developed a close bond with the Hopi people, the Hopi tribal chairman asked Jake to write about some actual gods, not katsina dolls, that had been stolen from their ceremonial hiding place. The FBI had been assigned to the case but had no leads. Jake’s subsequent article was turned down by several magazines “because it implied that many museums and art galleries deal in illegal artifacts.”
That’s when he decided he would turn it into the mystery novel, The Stolen Gods. The New York Times Book Review said “With his instinctive sensitivity to experiences as fascinating as the ‘ancient and orderly cacophony’ of kachina [sic] ritual dances and as moving as a tribal elder’s lament for his lost gods, big Mo could easily make his mark as a series hero.” Indeed, four more successful Mo Bowdre mystery series books followed through 1997, each getting great reviews.
In 2003, Jake completed the monumental challenge of researching, compiling, and writing In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians. The following years brought a broad spectrum of fun and fascinating science books for the general reader authored or co-authored by Jake Page, including Do Cats Hear with Their Feet?: Where Cats Come From, What We Know About Them, and What They Think About Us, and then Do Dogs Laugh?: Where Dogs Come From, What We Know About Them, and What They Think About Us.
So that’s a glimpse into the fascinating editing and writing career of Jake Page, author or co-author of at least 48 books and countless magazine articles. Next time, we’ll wrap up this bio blog series with how Jake came to write Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom.
Jim Turner is an historian, editor, teacher, researcher, and author. He received his masters degree in U.S. history from the University of Arizona and is now an editor for Rio Nuevo Publishers. He writes history articles for various newspapers around the state, and his pictorial history book, “Arizona: Celebrating the Grand Canyon State,” was named a “Top Pick” for Southwest Books of the Year by the Friends of the Pima County Library. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.