Tidewater Review - April 2011


West of Here
Anne Stinson

West of Here by Jonathan Evison. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 486 pp. $24.95.
Here’s a twist on the classic tales of settling the Old West, a two-part examination of conquered wilderness with a difference. Don’t look for cowboys in this epic that takes place on the raw edge of Washington State, although it has Indians – plenty of Indians.
Recipe for a blockbuster novel: Mix equal parts of Indians, (drunk and sober) adventurers, women’s libbers, entrepreneurs, loggers, fishermen and processors, civic boosters, mapmakers, environmentalists, felons and parole officers. Split the group down the middle and assign each group to a different era. One story takes place in the 1890s when Washington becomes a state. The second bunch consists of the great-grandchildren of the pioneers, plus an influx of saints and sinners in modern times, namely 2006. The two eras are interspersed in different chapters.
Bounce the actions of the early settlers and the current ones and watch the sparks fly.
The diva in this historical passion play is Nature itself. Most of the history takes place at a little coastal settlement, the mythical town of Port Bonita at the mouth of the Elwha River. It empties into Juan de Fuca Strait, and is fast, cold and rough as it pours from its source in the mountain range that almost shoves the little community into the Strait. The river is the spawning grounds for huge numbers of salmon and other anadromous fish. Deer, elk and bears are abundant in the ring of timber that wraps around the mountain ranges clustered around Mount Olympus.
Somewhere in that unmapped wilderness there also lurks terror – for the Indians, it’s the dreaded Thunderbird that wreaks havoc among the tribe. For the scientists a century later it’s the mystery of Bigfoot, the huge man/animal that has been reportedly sighted in the vicinity.
The 1890 contingent is marked by the creation of a dam on the Elwha River to harness electricity and attract a fish processing industry and railroad, creating a prosperous community bound for greatness. The 2006 community awaits the destruction of the dam to open the river once again to its spawning grounds and restore the fishery.
Added to a long list of characters in each of the two time capsules, the land itself is an active force in the story. Rain, cold damp fog and brooding gray skies hang over the coastline like a migraine headache, only to intensify the brief interludes of brilliant sun and sparkling water.
Within a day’s stroll away from the shoreline, rain morphs into snow, level paths roughen, then disappear as the earth seems to tilt toward upper air. Sawtooth mountain ranges lie ahead in no set pattern. Steep inclines rise to loose shale above the tree line then plunge to narrow valleys and another ridge ahead, ad infinitum. It’s an easy place to get lost, to starve, to die of fear in the thickly wooded slopes.
As proof of the given assumption that disaster can happen anywhere at any time, the modern generation in Port Bonita is no more safe than its predecessors. Accidents and poor judgment run in parallel lines in both time vignettes. Patterns repeat as if the inhabitants are incapable of learning anything from past behavior.
Two young women, one from each century, limn the lure of a rough terrain and culture fit for none but the hardy and strong willed. The early 19th century girl is a nascent suffragist, pregnant but adamant about remaining unwed. Her baby’s father begs her to marry him; her wealthy brother follows her from Chicago and tries to bully her into returning home, to no avail. She has plans for a church, a school, a library; in short, civilized life.
Her matching female in the 21st century is a fervent environmentalist, detached from the village life and devoted to the demise of the dam. She’s also a lesbian, out of the mainstream.
The only other female of note is a character who spans both eras. She’s a soft-hearted, savvy whore who winds up owning the saloon where she was hired in frontier days.
Native peoples, the Klallam Indian tribe, appear as tragic figures. Their contacts with white men have been devastating. Destruction and disappearance are inevitable. From the outcast half-Indian child with a white father, to his native grandfather, once a respected tribal elder and now a shamed drunk, alcoholism is endemic.
All the elements of the Pacific Northwest settlement are part of the crowded saga – the influx of gold prospectors just moving through, the opportunists who see wealth in the annual run of salmon, the hard-headed practical men who are bilked out of their successful inventions; the surveyors whose goal is to map every still-wild acre, no matter how dangerous the task, the endless line of schooners passing through the wide strait with loads of timber bound for San Francisco.
Port Bonita’s a challenging piece of real estate in 2006, just as it was in 1890, a place where a young ex-con can dream of (and maybe realize) disappearing into what the loggers have left of impenetrable forests on slopes too steep for harvesting. His weakness is lack of preparation for living off the land – his strength is a heroic parole officer.
And yes, the book ends with the dam crumbling with as much fanfare as its construction was celebrated. The reader assumes that the salmon will return to spawn upstream and the descendants of the long-ago pioneers will add their own legends to the colorful history of the past.
Fast moving with sharply drawn characters, the book is a notable addition to literature of this country’s last continental frontier.