Walla Walla writer's memoir due out Nov. 1

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"Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, a Daughter's Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything," by Karen Fisher-Alaniz, Nov. 1 publication, Sourcebooks.

History landed in Karen Fisher-Alaniz' lap when her then 81-year-old father Murray Fisher gifted her a collection of letters he wrote home to his family during World War II while serving in the U.S. Navy.

In the ensuing nine years, Karen, who lives not too far from her dad in Walla Walla, just couldn't put those missives down.

For the sake of legibility, she transcribed the letters from his small handwriting into typed pages.

She derived a cornucopia of questions from their cryptic content. Despite Murray's protestations that they were no big deal and didn't say much, Karen intuited that there was more to it.

The result is an absorbing memoir, "Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, a Daughter's Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything."

On most days Murray wrote to his "Dear Folks" two or three times, which yielded 400-plus pages of letters.

As Karen read through them, she queried her father about their meaning and researched aspects of the war in which he was involved while stationed in Hawaii in 1945.

They started a series of "Wednesdays with Murray" lunches so she could get answers from her father. Through this challenging process in which he was often quite reticent she discovered the top-secret role he played during the war and another devastatingly pivotal experience that profoundly affected him, but that he had suppressed for decades.

Murray was a member of a small, elite group of men trained to copy and break top-secret Japanese code transmitted in katakana.

He was sworn to secrecy and threatened with summary execution if he talked or wrote about his work. He couldn't even speak to fellow code breakers while on the job.

It was an isolating, lonely experience. When he came home, he moved forward, not imparting significant details about his time or what he actually did because he felt it didn't matter any more and the government had not given him permission to talk about his work. Through the years, his family heard partial, sanitized versions of his wartime life.

"With painful memories now at the forefront of his thoughts, Karen's father began to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, making their meetings as much about healing as discovery," a release notes.

Karen graduated in 1982 from Walla Walla High School. She entered her first essay in the Guideposts magazine Youth Writing Contest and was mentored by Walla Walla writer Shirley Pope Waite. Karen won a scholarship in the contest, earned a bachelor's and then a master's degree in elementary education and taught for 14 years in the Walla Walla Public School District.

Forced to leave teaching because of health issues, she began to freelance and that's when her dad started sharing his story with her. Murray's PTSD may have been triggered by the events surrounding 9/11, Karen said. He suffered from vivid flashbacks and nightmares that Karen and her mother, Bettye Fisher, so wanted to help him with.

Karen's written for "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and regional magazines. She also volunteers with the Friends of Children of Walla Walla program and was a Court Appointed Special Advocate here for several years.

Of this book project, Karen said husband Ric and kids Danielle, Micah and Caleb have been her greatest supporters. "They have sacrificed so much as I've been on this journey for about nine years now. They love their grandpa and know how important his story is. My two sisters, Kathleen and Susan were also great encouragers." Karen is writing two books; one a humorous memoir about raising a child who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and what it's like to parent a child who is truly unique.

"'Breaking the Code' deals with some very intense things like PTSD, so it wasn't appropriate to use any humor in it. I think writing my next memoir will feel completely different. I have also written an early chapter book called, "Huey and the Summer Snowball."

Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or afternoons at 526-8313.
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