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Michener broadened our view

Millions of people around the world have a better understanding of different cultures and places thanks to James Michener.

The prolific author died Thursday of kidney failure at age 90. His legacy is words, millions of them. His gift for storytelling brought countries and cultures to life and by doing so informed and enriched the lives of those who read his novels.His life in many ways was a mirror of the novels he wrote, which is why they had a resonance to which readers could relate. There was a humility to them, a sense of wanting to inform and enlighten without preaching that made them solid works.

The feel for his diverse subject matter was largely a result of his living in the places about which he wrote. That gave his novels an obvious sense of authority.

He didn't begin his writing career until the age of 40, in 1947. Appropriately his first book revolved around his personal experiences in the Navy in World War II and was titled "Tales of the South Pacific." It wasn't bad for a first effort, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and becoming the basis for a Broadway musical, "South Pacific," that was later made into a motion picture.

His following novels, which have been referred to as historical-geographical blockbusters, followed the same pattern: He had personal involvement with the peoples he wrote about. In 1956, for example, he was in Austria where he assisted dozens of refugees to safety during the Hungarian Revolt. He wrote about the experience in his 1957 book "The Bridge at Andau." Throughout most of the 1950s he lived in Hawaii where he appropriately produced the novel "Hawaii" in 1959.

He went to Afghanistan to write "Caravans," to Israel to write "The Source," to Spain to write both "Iberia" and "The Drifters." In 1974 he completed "Centennial," the epic about Colorado that became a 26-hour television miniseries.

He had a deep feeling for humanity and as such willingly shared his wealth. In 1996 Fortune magazine ranked him among the nation's top 25 philanthropists. He spent his final years in Texas, and his gifts to the University of Texas over the years totaled more than $44 million.

As might be expected from someone of humble upbringing - he was born Feb. 3, 1907 in New York City and was taken as an orphan to Doylestown, Pa., where he was adopted by a Quaker widow, Mabel Michener - he was very unassuming and modest about his accomplishments.

He downplayed his writing skills, saying he wasn't a stylist and didn't have a number of abilities other writers had. "But what I can do," he once said, "is put a good narrative together and hold the reader's interest."

Few, if any, writers, as millions would attest, could do it better.