by Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books (February 15, 2011)
Read it for the environmental theme, brilliant prose and strength of character development not the plot
West of Here is a big book! It encompasses actions and characters in two eras – the present day and the 1890s. It is set in the fictional town of Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The theme centers on the hope and promise of the pioneering spirit and the present day reality of those efforts. Not the cheeriest of outcomes! The pioneers dam the river to bring electricity to the town; their descendents decide to remove the dam in hopes of replenishing the depleted fish populations of the river. In moving between the two eras and showing the actions of the pioneers the author draws a compelling cause and effect on the environment. (Spoilers ahead)
There are a myriad of characters in this story, almost too many for me to keep up with. The pioneers are introduced in vignettes that deal with significant issues like emerging feminism, the white man’s relations with the native populations, the exploration of the Olympic peninsula, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the old west; the current day characters are much more internally focused. These characters – a factory worker trying to relive his high school ball playing glory days, a single mother struggling with a mentally ill son, a lesbian dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and an ex-con and his lonely parole officer wandering through the wilderness – struggle in the same place to be positive in the face of a landscape that is used up. The contrast between the settlement of the town and the current day could hardly be starker. The pioneers were able to form a community and act for the perceived good of it; the current day characters are much more adrift in their purpose and longing for that connection.
This is not a plot driven novel; it is more a character based story with a strong sense of place. Despite being character based I didn’t end up liking most of these characters, which probably speaks to how well the author portrayed these everyday people. Their actions just left me a little cold. One example, the dam- building entrepreneur and his sometime partner the feminist have a child who drowns in the river. This drowning scene is almost devoid of emotion, the mother and to a less extent the father reacts in a stilted manner to this loss. I am sure this scene was typical of how cheap life was on the frontier, just not something I want to dwell on.
The setting in on the Olympic peninsula is well captured in the novel. One of the story backdrops is the presence of a Bigfoot like character that strikes fear into the hearts of all who come near him. The theme of the environmental changes wrought on the land is also skillfully weaved throughout the story.
In the end I am somewhat conflicted about this book. It is not standard historical fiction in the style of Michener or Rutherford; readers looking for that should take a pass. It is a novel that delivers a message encrypted in a beautifully written series of vignettes (think a Nashville type movie). Read it for the environmental theme, brilliant prose and strength of character development not the plot.
This is the fourth novel I’ve read recently that shifts between present day and an earlier time (Thirteenth Tale, 13 rue Theresa, Goon Squad). I am officially swearing off this format for at least a while; it isn’t one of my favorites. I’d much rather be engrossed in a single set of characters and actions!
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia