Clean Slate

Surrounded now by water, I’ve learned to watch the beach for clues of the shifting seasons. Winter throws flotsam from the sea like a child tossing toys from her playpen—careless, in joyful fury. In spring, the sand is riffled by winds shooting over the eastern and western mountains ranges. My peninsula stands sentry between the minor dueling gods of cold and warmth. Apollo rises earlier and stronger each day, calming the skirmish with his spreading heat.

 

A few weeks ago I brought my yoga mat to this beach to unfurl my limbs as the sun rose over the Cascade Mountains. I’d been here the afternoon before and the beach was its usual disheveled Spring self. But on this morning, velvety Summer appeared. 2015-05-02 07.25.36

Clean. Slate.

 

For those who have been around this blog for a while, you know we washed ashore here two years ago. The circumstances that set us adrift from Seattle I’ve only hinted at, in part because I needed to sift through my bewilderment and rage in a private space, in part because I know someday I will release that bewilderment and rage in a story.

 

We’ve had few reasons to return to Seattle, dipping in and out as quickly as possible when obligations beckon. But a few weeks ago a workshop returned me to my old neighborhood for the first time since we left.

 

This neighborhood perches high, holding its skirts above the glittering urbanity at its feet. There is water on all sides, like moats surrounding a castle. It is an unattainable dream of Victorian mansions and Arts and Crafts bungalows rubbing elbows with Architectural Digest aeries of glass and steel. The handful of business streets interrupt the residential idyll with a chock-a-block of cafés and famous-chef restaurants, galleries, a bookstore, yoga studios, dentists. We lived in an apartment we couldn’t afford in a renovated Art Deco walk-up. I wrote in my favorite cafés and in the rays of sun streaming through tall windows at the Carnegie library. I swam at the neighborhood YMCA and ran the long flights of stairs leading to the city below.

 

I arrived in my old neighborhood, cautious, anticipating pain. I belonged here, once; this had been my home, my neighborhood, my haunts, my gardens and dream homes and breathtaking views.

 

Yet, such changes. Where once had sat a sweet, locally owned market there is now a monstrosity of towering condos, anchored by a bank on one side and a chain grocery store on the other. I went inside this store, looking for something cold to drink. Aisles of prepackaged food. No connection to the neighborhood. The forced folksiness, false nutrition, self-satisfied trendiness made my skin crawl. I left, throat parched.

 

Outside, car after car inched along the main street, as though in the parking lot of a suburban mall. Everyone there, but no one here.

 

I escaped down a side street, entering the cool green residential rows. It was as I remembered. Rarified. Serene.

 

A woman half a block up stood beside a rock wall, tucked into the shelter of a drooping willow tree, perhaps admiring the clematis or camellias. As I neared, she pulled a wine bottle from a Walgreen’s shopping bag. I heard the snick of a screw-cap releasing. She lifted the bottle to her mouth and tilted it up. Her throat worked, up and down. She took no notice of me.

 

A few blocks later, we passed each other. She smiled and offered me a cheery hello, swinging the plastic Walgreen’s bag with its secret inside. I returned her greeting. And realized I couldn’t wait to go. Home.

 

Clean. Slate.

 

 

 

 

The Language of Loss

I have but few words for you today. I’m tired.

 

Someone I love lost someone she loves a few days ago in a terrible tragedy. The kind your brain comprehends as your eyes read the words, but your heart pushes away and says, “No. Not this. No.”

 

I’m so sorry, I say. What can I do for you?

 

At my annual physical the doctor asks me, Do you feel safe? She means at home. Yes, of course. I am safe, I say. But inside, I cry. We are, none of us, safe. There, but for grace, we fall.

  ~

 

Sundays are my long run days. I amble out, go easy, go long, eventually reaching the beach and several trailheads that take me through fields and forest before dropping me onto another beach, where again I climb the trails and roads toward home.

 

But this morning, I think better of it. I wake with a sore throat, a stuffed nose, an aching head. If I’m coming down with something, shouldn’t I stay in, rest, read the good book I started the night before? Shouldn’t I be writing?

 

I (almost) never get sick, so when I do, it feels like a failure of character, rather than of body. Maybe I am a little under the weather. But really, I think I’m heartsick.

 

The sunrise calls my bluff. Calls me out with the promise of peace. Renewal. The forest offers refuge where I can let tears fall. For my friend and the sadness and pain of her lost love. For our vulnerability.

 

If you are feeling vulnerable, I write for you. I know the pain is unbearable; it is too much for one person alone. You do not have to bear it alone. You are loved. You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change. When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) The National Suicide Prevention Hotline; if you are not in the United States, this website can help you locate a crisis hotline: International Association for Suicide Prevention I know you do not want to die, you just can’t see any way out. You just want some peace. I promise you, peace awaits you, here, now, and there are so many people available to help you reach it. Hang on. Call.

 

If you have lost a loved one, you are not alone. You are not to blame. Your dear friend, family member, partner did not want to hurt you. They were in deep, deep pain from an illness that was beyond your reach. Their death is not your shame. You are not responsible. You are loved. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) The National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It is there for you, too.

 

I’m at the end of my words now. Today I give my mind permission to rest.  I captured these moments of beauty and renewal on my run this morning. This place of peace. This place of safety.

 

2015-04-05 07.23.39 2015-04-05 08.21.20 2015-04-05 08.33.26 2015-04-05 08.37.15 2015-04-05 08.54.58 2015-04-05 09.02.03

Blowing Through the Jasmine*

I walk down the hill to the town plaza, thinking the Thursday evening concert on the dock will be the ideal coda to yet another blissful summer day. Yesterday’s breathless 84°—the warmest day of the year—segued into today’s carefree, breezy 76°.

 

The Plaza is empty. I check my watch. The concert should be well underway. Then it hits me. It’s mid-September. September. Public school has been in session for several days, the detritus of the Wooden Boat Festival had been hosed away on Monday. Summer—regardless of the sun’s tango with the magnetic Poles—is officially over. There hasn’t been a concert on the dock for two weeks.

 

I wander through the marina, coming to rest against the warm bronze flanks of a sea otter. The final busloads of tourists amble down the ochre blocks of our Victorian seaport to the terminus of the piers; the hard consonants of places where dark bread and sausage are eaten at breakfast mingle with rounded drawls dripping with humidity and tangled in mangroves. I join them in gazing into the bays and the vistas beyond.

 

To the east, the Cascades etch jagged lines into a cerulean horizon, bookended by Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier to the south. To the west, the Olympics are confections of cobalt, softly rounded in the late afternoon light and stripped of snow.

IMG_1106
Port Townsend, September. Click for bigger view.

Wrapping the peninsula like a velvet ribbon is a bank of fog that stretches from the Salish Sea through Admiralty Bay to the Port Townsend Bay, where it curls around Marrowstone Island. Fog horns blow—a winter sound incongruous with the sparkling diamonds of sun bouncing off waves and a sky radiating heat like warm denim. The Coupeville ferry emerges from the white ridge, blaring a warning siren as sailboats and cargo ships slip past and into the cottony nothingness. I imagine this fog cutting us off from the world, marooning us in Summerland forever.

 

What has happened to me? My autumn anticipation—visions of soup and flannel, leaves and wood smoke, pencil shavings and pumpkin—used to begin its eager percolation in early August. Even in Seattle—where I learned to love summer after years spent in searing central Washington and the sticky Midwest—I’d had enough by Labor Day. The city grows dull with dust, its gardens and trees limp, its citizens twitchy with Vitamin D; it just feels wrong in that place of espresso and indie bookstores to go so long without the soporific cleanse of cascading rain.

 

But here. I am not ready. I haven’t worn long pants in months and my legs are tan for the first time since 1988. My arms are a frenzy of freckles, my hair lightened to a coppery gold. More than the physical changes, something has clicked inside. I crave sunlight and heat for the first time in my life (right, so heat is relative. Stop at 75°, please—anything more is just showing off). It’s emotional, this connection to the blue and the gold of summer. I tremble as I let go of the stillness of warm forests, to the coming and going of strangers along shaded sidewalks, to the weekly beer dates in the beachfront courtyard of our favorite pub—where pet goats and games of pétanque are minor distractions to the lazy drift of beautiful vessels just beyond.

 

It’s often foggy here on summer mornings, typical for a maritime climate. This is good for writing productivity. But by late morning I can no longer type away in the sunroom. The rays eat away at the fog, blue overtakes white, the computer screen fades in the outrageous bright, and I become drowsy with the heat. I slather on the sunscreen and cart the laptop to the waterfront, to write to the sound of shrieking gulls and the slap of waves. I could do this every day, 365. I fear I have lost have my Northwest duck feathers that hardly notice a rain shower.

 

It’s coming. Today and tomorrow a cheerful sun beams from the weather app on my iPhone. By Wednesday it’s yanked away, replaced with a faucet drip of rain or a smudge of overcast. Yes, we will have Indian summer—late September through mid-October will bring those glorious sunrises, goldenrod days, and crisp nights. But it’s coming, that endless mutation of gray, green, and brown. The steady tick of rain dripping from evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves. Days when the high temperature is the same as the low.

 

I console myself with the knowledge that I now live in a place described as having a Mediterranean climate, with half the rainfall of Seattle. But in the absence of olive trees and cicadas, Roman ruins, and terraced vineyards, I’m not fooled. I will mourn the brown lines of my sandal tan as it fades from the tops of my feet, the shriveling of blackberries I grab by the handful as I bike along the Larry Scott trail. I will mourn my shadow when it no longer falls onto the sand before me. I’m with Henry James on this one.

 

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James

 “Summer, after all, is a time when wonderful things can happen to quiet people. for those few months, you’re not required to be who everyone thinks you are, and that cut-grass smell in the air and the chance to dive into the deep end of a pool give you a courage you don’t have the rest of the year. you can be grateful and easy, with no eyes on you, and no past. summer just opens the door and lets you out.”
― Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

 

**A version of this post first appeared in this blog on September 14, 2013. A day exactly like today.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld’s extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this. You simply must.” It’s been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops–another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison’s most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy’s wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York’s attorneys, she is delving into the condemned’s life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York’s execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it’s caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society’s nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics’ best of lists. It damn well better be.

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Blowing through the jasmine…

I walk down the hill to the town plaza, thinking the Thursday evening concert on the dock will be the ideal coda to yet another blissful summer day. Yesterday’s breathless 84°—the warmest day of the year—segued into today’s carefree, breezy 76°.

The Plaza is empty. I check my watch. The concert should be well underway. Then it hits me. It’s September 12th. September. Public school has been in session for several days, the detritus of the Wooden Boat Festival had been hosed away on Monday. Summer—regardless of the sun’s tango with the magnetic Poles—is officially over. There hasn’t been a concert on the dock for two weeks.

I wander through the marina, coming to rest against the warm bronze flanks of a sea otter. The hard consonants of places where dark bread and sausage are eaten at breakfast mingle with rounded drawls dripping with humidity and tangled in mangroves: the final busloads of tourists amble down the ochre blocks of our Victorian seaport to the terminus of the piers, gazing as I do into the bays and the vista beyond.

To the east, the Cascades etch jagged lines into a cerulean horizon, bookended by Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier to the south. To the west, the Olympics are confections of cobalt, softly rounded in the late afternoon light and stripped of snow.

IMG_1106
Port Townsend, September. Click for bigger view.

Wrapping the peninsula like a velvet ribbon is a bank of fog that stretches from the Salish Sea through Admiralty Bay to the Port Townsend Bay, where it curls around Marrowstone Island. Fog horns blow—a winter sound incongruous with the sparkling diamonds of sun bouncing off waves and a sky radiating heat like warm denim. The Coupeville ferry emerges from the white ridge, blaring a warning siren in its wake as sailboats and cargo ships slip into the cottony nothingness. I imagine this fog cutting us off from the world, and we become forever marooned in Summerland.

What has happened to me? My autumn anticipation—visions of soup and flannel, leaves and wood smoke, pencil shavings and pumpkin—used to begin its eager percolation in early August. Even in Seattle—where I learned to love summer after years spent in searing central Washington and the sticky Midwest—I’d had enough by Labor Day. The city grows dull with dust, its gardens and trees limp, its citizens twitchy with a saturation of Vitamin D; it just feels wrong in that place of espresso and indie bookstores to go so long without the soporific cleanse of cascading rain.

But here.  I am not ready. I haven’t worn long pants in months and my legs are tan for the first time since 1988. My arms are a frenzy of freckles, my hair lightened to a coppery gold. More than the physical changes, something has clicked inside. I crave sunlight and heat for the first time in my life (right, so heat is relative. Stop at 75°, please—anything more is just showing off). It’s emotional, this connection to the blue and the gold of summer. I tremble to let go of the stillness of warm forests and busyness of the waterfront, to the coming and going of strangers along shaded sidewalks, to the weekly beer dates in the beachfront courtyard of our favorite pub—where pet goats and games of pétanque are minor distractions to the lazy drift of beautiful vessels just beyond.

It’s often foggy here on summer mornings, typical for a maritime climate. This is good for writing productivity. But by late morning I can no longer type away in the sunroom. The rays eat away at the fog, blue overtakes white, the computer screen fades in the outrageous bright, and I become drowsy with the heat. I slather on the sunscreen and cart the laptop to the waterfront, to write to the sound of shrieking gulls and the slap of waves. I could do this every day, 365. I fear I have lost have my Northwest duck feathers that hardly notice a rain shower.

It’s coming. Today and tomorrow a cheerful sun beams from the weather app on my iPhone. By Sunday it’s yanked away, replaced with a faucet drip of rain or a smudge of overcast. Yes, we will have Indian summer—late September through mid-October will bring those glorious sunrise, goldenrod days and crisp nights. But it’s coming. The endless mutations of gray, green, and brown. The steady tick of rain dripping from evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves. Days when the high temperature is the same as the low.

I console myself with the knowledge that I now live in a place described as having a Mediterranean climate, with half the rainfall of Seattle (only twice that of Phoenix, hey!). But in the absence of olive trees and cicadas, Roman ruins, and terraced vineyards, I’m not fooled. I will mourn the brown lines of my sandal tan as they fade from the tops of my feet, the shriveling of blackberries I grab by the handful as I bike along the Larry Scott trail. I will mourn my shadow when it no longer falls onto the sand before me. I’m with Henry James on this one.

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James

 “Summer, after all, is a time when wonderful things can happen to quiet people. for those few months, you’re not required to be who everyone thinks you are, and that cut-grass smell in the air and the chance to dive into the deep end of a pool give you a courage you don’t have the rest of the year. you can be grateful and easy, with no eyes on you, and no past. summer just opens the door and lets you out.”
― Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

Book Review: We Live In Water: Stories by Jess Walter

We Live in Water: StoriesWe Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The thing about failure is that it’s never really over. Even after shuffling off this mortal coil, your failures reverberate like ripples in a pond, carry into lives left behind. Jess Walter, in his exquisite collection We Live In Water presents twelve men, Disciples of Failure, whose stories we read after they have made the worst choices, their lives already in a state of deliquescence.

Walter takes the snapshots we make every day in our mind’s eye and crafts the stories behind the moment. The men sitting with cardboard signs at freeway on-ramps: Anything Helps; the convicts picking up trash on the side of the highway: The Wolf and the Wild; the young people harassing you for a moment to talk about Greenpeace or Save the Children on your way into the grocery store: Helpless Little Things; the women behind those stripper cards handed out in seedy Las Vegas: The New Frontier. We wonder “Who are these people? How did they fall so low?” What we turn away from, what we are afraid to imagine, Walter follows through, coloring in the space of our imagination.

Children, young boys – are often the focus of Walter’s many touches of grace. These boys represent the potential of goodness, perhaps what these men were like before the world ground their faces in a mud puddle or before greed, anger or addiction became their motivating forces. In The Wolf and the Wild a little boy aches to curl in the lap of a convict, to read the same picture book over and over. There is no point in taking a chance on something new – the familiar is the best comfort a lost little boy can hope for. The son in Anything Helps rejects his father’s gift, but with such compassion you know you are seeing the act of a youth who is becoming a man before his time. In the collection’s title story, a single moment – the blue glow of an aquarium – releases a man’s childhood memory of his father’s disappearance.

Walter also takes us where no man has gone before: the future. In one of the most imaginative stories, Don’t Eat Cat, set in Seattle’s Fremont district just a few years hence, an epidemic of zombies is taking over the city. But within the futuristic oddity runs a current of reality. These zombies have a disease, a horrific effect of the addiction to an anti-depressant. Owen, who loses his cool in a Starbucks after a zombie messes up his order, points out “But is this the Apocalypse? Fuck you. It’s always the Apocalypse. The world hasn’t gone to shit. The world is shit. All I’d asked was that is be better managed.” Yep. Get that.

Walter wields a deft hand with black comedy. Virgo is devious, written in first-person by a stalker who plots revenge on his ex-girlfriend by sabotaging her daily horoscope. The New Frontier, has the making of a bromance buddy caper: two guys travel to Las Vegas to save the sister of one her life as a hooker in Las Vegas. The brother is a goob. His buddy, who recounts their mission, is, well…

Jess Walter closes with a thirteenth piece. Less a story than an ode, an explanation, a litany, Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington is a bullet-point list of the failures of a tired-but-trying city and the reasons why Walter chooses to remain.

I don’t mean to make the short stories seem like complete downers. There are no happy endings here; in many cases there are no endings – these are moments, suspended in the time it takes to read the few pages you get. But Walter has this way of imbuing his stories with a gentle caress of humanity and not a little humor that saves his characters’ voices from becoming maudlin. At the same time, we are spared the soft focus of sentimentality because the edges are raw with grief or pointed with violence. I applaud him for giving the Pacific Northwest a dimension of character that overrides the clichéd image of rugged landscapes and frontier spirits.

After reading this collection, it’s a done deal: in my book, Jess Walter is one of the greatest of contemporary American fiction writers.

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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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