Book Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

West of HereWest of Here by Jonathan Evison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In March 2012, the final pieces of concrete and steel of the Elwha River Dam were removed. For one hundred years, man tried to harness the power of this river that flows through the haunting green and glacial interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Before it was dammed (damned), it hosted annual runs of fish, which numbered in the millions – sockeye, Coho, Chinook, cutthroat trout, steelhead, char, among many; it gave life to black bear, cougar, madrona and red cedar. It flowed through the ancestral home of the Klallam people. Removal of the Elwha Dam last year and the Glines Dam this summer mean the renewal and restoration of one of America’s most priceless national treasures: the Olympic National Park.

But at the time Washington was granted statehood (1889), the western Olympic Peninsula – crowded with sharp peaks like a mouth with too many teeth and a vast rain forest where ferns and fungi grow to fairy tale proportions – was the last frontier of the American West. Its natural resources were too great not to be consumed by the appetites of entrepreneurs. And so the flow of progress stopped the flow of the Elwha. For eight decades, its power was channeled to fuel the grind and stench of the Port Angeles paper mill and the mammoth timber industry that reigned over the western-most reaches of the United States.

Jonathan Evison’s messy and beautiful West of Here was published in 2011 just as the Elwha Dam removal project got underway. It is situated in Port Bonita, a thinly-disguised Port Angeles, in the early days of its modern development (circa 1890) and the end days of its reliance on the Elwha for it economy (2006). His cast of characters is large and they are but appendages to the beating heart of the novel’s central character: the Olympic Peninsula.

As a reader and writer for whom “Place” is core to my intellectual and emotional orientation, I have a tender spot for stories which ground themselves so firmly into their setting. Evison does this to spectacular effect – giving the same profound sense of place as Ivan Doig’s Montana, Edna O’Brien’s Ireland, Mark Helprin’s New York City (full disclosure: I grew up in Sequim, fifteen miles east of “Port Bonita” and I now reside on the eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. This land is in my blood).

This is not clean and tidy historical fiction that follows the strictures of fact. Evison himself states in the author notes “I set out to write…not a historical novel but a mythical novel about history.” He anchors the plot in fact – basing James Mather’s quixotic winter expedition to plot a route across the Olympic Mountains to the Pacific Ocean on James Christie’s Press Expedition of 1888-1889; nearly all place names are real; snippets of Washington state history – Seattle’s great fire of 1889 and Port Townsend’s subsequent quest to become Washington’s most important city (which failed, thank goodness – I love my beautiful, peaceful small town, where those homes and edifices built in its Victorian heyday still offer as much wonder as they do shelter). The novel’s backbone is this region’s history and it reveals Evison’s extensive research.

Evison presents many themes: the degradation to environment and indigenous peoples by the mindless pursuit of progress and development; the burgeoning women’s movement of the late nineteenth century; tribal politics and the plight of Native Americans who stumble between a lost past and an uncertain future; post-partum-depression; the throwaway life of the modern American. Evison has been criticized for presenting this jumble of themes without following them all to their conclusion. I counter by asking when in life do we really have closure? How often are we able to tidy up our moral dilemmas, our own pasts, and march on, certain of our path? Umm…never? Right. Not even with the hindsight of history do we ever achieve certainty.

Greater than his themes, in terms of quantity and quality, are Evison’s characters: we live 1890’s Port Bonita through the adventures of feminist Eva, explorer Mather, entrepreneurs Ethan and Jacob, civil servant Adam, prostitute Gertie, healer Haw, and Klallam mother Hoko and her troubled son Thomas; Port Bonita of 2006 offers up aging high school athlete and Sasquatch hunter Krig and his hapless boss Jared; Franklin, one of the Peninsula’s few black men; ex-con Tillman; Forest Service Hillary; healer Lew; Klallam mother Rita and her troubled son Curtis. And those are just the characters I can remember as I type. But each is rendered with affection – an affection I find striking, because not all these characters are sympathetic. Fairness and empathy are this writer’s imprimatur, I believe.

The cast of characters and the shifting progression of the plot in West of Here– from one era and storyline to the next and back again – made me think of hanging wet clothes on our backyard laundry rack in New Zealand, where the wind blew ceaselessly. I’d bend down to pull out the next shirt or bath towel and the rack would whip around, presenting me with an empty line or an already-crowded patch. But I stayed in place and kept hanging, knowing in the end it would all get sorted.

I faltered a bit mid-way through (and don’t let the 486 pages of text daunt you. Evison’s prose nips at your heels – forward motion is easy) because of the bleakness of modern-day Port Bonita. I remember the Port Angeles of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the timber and paper industries stalled. In contrast to my rain-shadowed, blue-skied Sequim flush with retiree and dairy cash, Port Angeles was a gray and lifeless place. Heavy with damp lichen and lost dreams, it wasn’t a place to linger. Evison’s reimaging of Port Bonita twenty years later brought back that sense of listlessness.

But just when you think these lives are going nowhere, the author tosses you a laugh-aloud lifeline and a tenderness that promises redemption.

Rather than comparison to today’s Lit It Boys and Girls – the other Jonathans (Franzen, Safran-Foer) Dan Chaon, Zadie Smith – whose works have left me out in the cold, I hope I have found a writer with more classic sensibilities and a deeper appreciation for storytelling. I’ll keep reading Jonathan Evison to find out.

In the meantime, follow with me the progression of life returning to the Elwha. Return of the River

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