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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The Sea, The Sea*

My dad likes to tell the story of how he saved our childhood. As he neared the end of his last quarter at Oregon State University, his job search took him to Chicago. A successful interview set our family of six, which included three boys under the age of twelve and a toddler girl, on the track of a comfortable life in the flat suburbs that stretched west and north of that mighty stone and steel city.

He had all but signed the contract, when he agreed to one last interview at a remote marine sciences laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula. He drove the long miles from our home in Corvallis to a bend of a road that overlooks a bay that feeds into a sea, which kisses Canada before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

I was twenty-three before I visited Chicago for the first time.

An Olympic Peninsula beach

I have a pair of olfactory memories that frame my childhood. First is scent of rain. Rain on pavement, rain on soil, rain on roof tar softened by summer warmth, rain on freshly-mown grass, rain on the fur of the neighbor’s black Lab, rain on pages of library books, releasing musty secrets, rain, rain, rain that sluices off the Siuslaw Hills into the Willamette Valley and puddles in sweet, earnest Corvallis.

The Salish Sea, Olympic Peninsula


The second is the sharp, sweaty odor of the beaches of Dungeness Bay, which are strewn with ankle-twisting stones, rotting kelp and pock-marked driftwood.

And from the coast rise other memories that I inhale when the wind is right. There is the stone-fruit headiness that bursts forth when a carpet of coastal sand verbena is crushed under the toe of a blue salt-water sandal. The flirty, green spritzes of common vetch as its ropy stems and delicate purple flowers dry in meadows succumbing to an August sun. The forests of Douglas fir, which pitch out wafts of medicinal, masculine resin, beckoning you into their cool shadows.

Although I grew up on the anvil-shaped Olympic Peninsula, under a mountain rainshadow that allows tourist brochures to claim it as the driest Pacific coast community north of Los Angeles, I don’t do sea things. I fight a bilious belly if the thirty-minute ferry ride from Edmonds to Kingston rolls a little too much in the winter swells. I’ve been sailing…twice? I love to swim, but I prefer the tidy confines of the lanes at my local aquatic center to the slimy, cold depths of local bays. My idea of a vacation in hell is a cruise, trapped on a floating city of carbohydrate-laden breakfast buffets and spray-tanned bachelorettes.

But I am as spiritually attached to the open water as I am to writing, to running, to cooking — activities I can exist without doing or being a part of, but if I am kept from any for too long, my soul begins to shrivel. Living by a bay, a sound, a sea, an ocean is as much an action as it is a state of being. It gives me a sense of forward motion and the perspective of possibility.

How fortunate I am to have lived in Colorado’s Western Slope, where in winter the Rocky Mountains unleash oceans of snow by night and the Grand Mesa kicks up the waves of sun by day. And in Appalachian woodlands lush with humidity that rises from the storied waters of the Ohio River. Or in central Illinois, where once a sea of tall grass prairie reached to the horizon; it now pulses green with waves of cornstalks and rows of soybean. And in the arid valleys of central Washington state, whose sub-Alpine hillsides taught me how to hike, whose friendly country towns sheltered me through a bitter adolescence to my soaring university years and ushered me into marriage. These unique and precious regions bade welcome and I called them home for many years. But they are, each is, miles, hours, days from open water. And being close to water — water that shifts with tides, that is briny with salt and gastropods — is now a non-negotiable for me.

Oregon’s rain seeped into my skin as my first memories formed. Rain is as soothing to me as Big Bird’s simple joy and Mister Roger’s sky-blue cardigans. But the sea sinewed my heart and nourished my imagination with minerals and bacteria and protein.

Gore Bay, Canterbury Coast, New Zealand

I am working now on a series of connected stories that I hope to mold into something greater, someday, when the stories are ready to be pulled into one. The sea is becoming a character in her own right. My challenge is to turn my back on this character and write her as much a villain as a beloved. Although the sea represents endless possibility, her unforgiving, unfathomable depths make her the epitome of impossible.

*The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. One of my favorite descriptions of the sea is the book’s opening paragraph:

“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”