Cassandra Sato is a fish out of water. Originally from Hawaii, she’s living and working in a college located in Nebraska. Readers who have never visited Hawaii can still empathize with her lack of clothing sense, her aversion to the dark winter days with piles of snow, and her homesickness. But she is always a professional. I liked Cassandra even if I didn’t understand her culture and vocabulary—more about that later.
Dead of Winter Break was released in November. It’s set on the lonely campus of Morton College during the holidays when most students are back home, except for the international students who can’t afford the plane fare. But the story involves those who remain on campus, lessening the pool of suspects and giving the plot a closed-circle flair.
Please welcome Kelly Brakenhoff to WWK. E. B. Davis
I was confused as to why Cassandra needed to talk with her old boss, Morton College President Nielson, who was returning to his old job, at least temporarily, and get answers as to why he was returning. Was it her business? She internalizes his return as a sign that he doesn’t have confidence in her, and even to the point that she thinks his return is a diss to her. She doesn’t know why he is returning—why does she make those assumptions?
Cassandra had conflicted feelings about Dr. Nielson. At times, he could be a charming, encouraging mentor who supported her dream of becoming a university president. Other days, he was an out of touch, domineering bureaucrat. Once he retired, part of her hoped she’d advanced one step closer to the top job on campus. Like many of us who might make faulty assumptions, she took his unexpected return personally.
Cassandra moved to Nebraska from Hawaii to fill an administrative position, Vice President of Student Affairs, with Morton College. Her best friend Meg is also in an administrative position at Morton. Did they know each other from Hawaii?
Although Dead of Winter Break can be read as a standalone story, it’s actually third in the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series. We find out in earlier books that Meg O’Brien, Morton College’s ASL Interpreter Coordinator, and Cassandra worked together at Oahu State College when they were both in their early twenties. Meg’s husband was stationed on Oahu when he was in the military and the friends reunited when Cassandra moved to Nebraska.
What is Cassandra’s PhD in?
Cassandra graduated from the University of Hawai’i at the tender age of 28 with a focus on Higher Education Administration.
Although Chairman Hershey dismissed Cassandra from the running for the president position due to her lack of age and experience, doesn’t being president of a college entail getting substantial donations from alumna and other sponsors? In previous books and this one, Cassandra does no fundraising. But Cassandra assumes his dismissal is due to her sex and race. Why?
Cassandra traces her ancestors back to Japan, although she grew up in Hawai’i where she was surrounded by the multicultural cornucopia of island life. Cassandra experiences not-so-subtle racism soon after moving to small town Nebraska where 97% of the population is white. Morton’s Board of Directors rely on Cassandra to investigate the mysterious mishaps around campus and run things smoothly in the midst of crises. She knows that very few women become university presidents, so she automatically assumes those factors when Mr. Hershey doesn’t immediately offer his support. Cassandra’s hard work usually speaks for itself, but she still has a lot to learn both professionally and personally.
Readers are sometimes stumped by the Hawaiian vocabulary and culture that infuses Cassandra’s thoughts and speech. Many of these words can be guessed by the context of the situation, but here’s a few more details. Writing these out is making me hungry. Maybe I should start adding recipes to the end of my books?
What does wahine mean? The Hawaiian word for a woman.
ASL? American Sign Language
Spam musubi? Spam Musubi is a popular Hawaiian creation consisting of four ingredients: Spam, rice, nori (seaweed sheets), and furikake (a Japanese seasoning). Cassandra thinks they taste like home.
Snowpocalypse? Also known as Snowmageddon, it’s a fun combination of the words “snow” with either “Apocalypse” or “Armageddon.” Nebraskans can usually count on at least one of these large snowstorms every couple of years.
Mochi? A Japanese rice cake made with sticky rice. In Hawai’i, it’s a popular treat at potlucks during the New Year holiday.
Shishi? In Hawaiian Pidgin, shishi means to go to the bathroom.
Tako poke? This is a popular chopped seafood appetizer whose main ingredient is sliced octopus. I like mine cooked, but it’s also served raw. If you attend any parties in Hawai’i, you will see some variation of poke.
Sensei? This is a polite Japanese word for “teacher.” One of the international students calls Cassandra sensei as a show of respecting her as his elder.
Frings? Nebraska is home to a regional restaurant chain named Runza whose most popular menu item is a Runza sandwich, which is a baked dough pocket bread filled with hamburger, cabbage, and LOVE. The second most popular menu item is Frings, a genius combination of French fries and onion rings in one happy little takeout bag. If you ever drive through Nebraska, I urge you to stop along I-80 and try them both. You’re welcome.
“A calabash family?” In Hawai’i, non-locals often do barbecues and hang out with friends or neighbors to the point your support network becomes like a big extended family. “Calabash family” might not be blood relatives, but they can be cherished friends you need when you live far from your home.
Hawai’i time? This
is a reference to island life where concerts, parties, and meetings don’t
necessarily follow strict clock time. You might find the same laid-back
lifestyle at many island, resort, or tourist places.
The story takes place over winter break. The college has closed two residence halls and consolidated the students remaining into the international student dorm, which Cassandra volunteered to oversee since she wasn’t flying home to Hawaii. When a tree crashes into her house after a snowstorm and her house is broken into, she is forced to lodge at the dorm. She meets two trouble-making students. Is Sela Roberts a foreign student?
Cassandra hasn’t looked in the student database to find where Sela is from exactly, but she obviously has enough money to buy beautiful clothes. Sela loves colorful headscarves and glamorous makeup and speaks with a British Caribbean accent. We will learn much more about Sela in the next books.
How did Cassandra end up with her dog, Murphy? What breed is he? What is his problem?
Without spoiling anything from previous books, Cassandra ends up adopting Murphy in an unexpected turn of events right before this story begins. Murphy is a white West Highland Terrier who misses his owner and senses Cassandra’s discomfort as a new foster mom. They both make some big adjustments in this book. Can Murphy worm his way into Cassandra’s heart?
When Cassandra has to crack the whip on the slovenly students, Murphy helps her have common ground with them. How does he help? What does Cassandra learn about Murphy or perhaps herself?
An ongoing conflict in this story is between Cassandra and Murphy. Does she regret her hasty decision to rescue him? She’s never even owned a goldfish before, so what does she know about bonding with an animal who has lost his mother? He naturally snuggles up to the students who swoon over him but seems to sense Cassandra’s discomfort. In this story, we see Cassandra struggle to connect with the students and the dog, in addition to all the professional challenges on her plate.
Nielson says of Cassandra that people often mistake her calm professionalism for coldness. Does Cassandra agree with that assessment?
Cassandra is an intelligent leader with high standards in a field dominated by older men. Her tunnel vision to follow her professional plan sometimes leads people to judge her as too driven. As the school disciplinarian, Cassandra is fairly secure in herself and aware that everyone isn’t going to like her. She has developed a thick skin when it comes to student criticism.
Why won’t Cassandra work anywhere until her late seventies?
Cassandra is only 34, but her ambitious life plan includes an early, successful career in higher education followed by an early retirement. She might be a tad frustrated by some of her former bosses who want to continue working until they keel over in their soup bowls. That conflict between the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations pops up a few times in the first three books and comes to a head in the next book.
Why did Cassandra buy a house in Nebraska? Because she could?
The median price of a single-family home on Oahu is $880,000 and often young adults live with roommates or extended family in order to afford the cost of living. In small town Nebraska, a home costing the median $220,000 is much more feasible for a single young adult to afford. Cassandra loves saving DIY photos of organized closets and remodeled kitchens on Pinterest and can’t wait to peel the ancient wallpaper from the 1950s era galley kitchen in her bungalow.
Can you explain why a soybean seed formula (even more than the soybean itself) is so valuable?
Sure! My brother-in-law, Craig Franzen works for a farmers’ cooperative and helped this city girl understand the intricacies of soybean seed breeding (but I’m not an expert by any stretch). Seed companies spend years testing and genetic breeding to make seeds that grow high quality plants with superior resistance to disease and drought that can feed the world while using fewer resources.
A similar industry process you might already be familiar with is when pharmaceutical companies test and develop new medicines (or vaccines). Both are highly competitive markets worth a lot of money. Companies (like Monsanto for example) own land in both the US and South America. Once they find a seed that is successful, they can plant in the US during our summer and in the Southern Hemisphere during their growing season. So, a company can get two growing cycles from one calendar year. This maximizes the time it takes to breed a better plant.
Why is a soybean seed formula considered a government secret? And why would the Chinese government report a missing proprietary file of the soybean to the USDA?
The Chinese government is responsible for feeding 1.4 billion people in a cost-effective manner. They are also doing seed research to produce higher yields that can grow in a variety of climates. The more self-reliant China becomes, the better their negotiating position during trade talks with the US. In the US, the USDA is the federal agency responsible for monitoring soils, seeds, and agriculture. It’s not complete fiction to imagine that representatives would contact US officials when they suspect their research has been stolen.
According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “The United States restricts or prohibits the entry of many agricultural products, which can carry foreign pests and diseases that harm American agriculture and our environment. A major pest or disease outbreak could mean higher grocery bills, shortages of certain foods, and devastating losses for our farmers and ranchers.”
Is there really such a thing as agricultural espionage?
The most well-known case occurred in 2011 when some Chinese men were caught digging up seeds from a cornfield in Iowa. The investigation uncovered a plot by a Chinese agricultural company to reverse-engineer seed lines belonging to two American companies. Any time an American company has a competitive advantage in the field of agriculture, there is a high chance that a foreign government would target that technology.
Is there really a plant repository?
Yes! The National Plant Germplasm System in Miami, FL is part of a global network of gene banks to preserve important genetic resources. Established in 1984, it is the world’s number one source for raw materials for basic genetic research, breeding and preservation of rare species. They collect and distribute various fruit, nut, and other plant species to researchers around the world.
Why isn’t Cassandra interested in romance?
Hmm . . . do we really know yet? Her first semester at Morton College was filled with one disaster after another. In this book, she’s focused on her broken house, a blizzard, and a dead boss. At least a couple of eligible guys are interested in Cassandra. Let’s all hope that in future books her life might calm down enough for her to expend energy on developing a romance. The harder task might be deciding which man suits her better. That’s a topic for future books!
What’s next for Cassandra?
Millennial Cassandra has to come to terms with her new Baby Boomer boss, and there’s going to be some friction. When Cassandra’s parents visit Nebraska over Spring Break, we’ll get to see their antics up close. Cassandra’s coworkers and students will be involved in more mayhem, and I’ve heard there will be a stage production of The Three Musketeers! Never a dull moment in Carson, Nebraska. Look for the next episode later this summer.