West of Here, Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011, 484 pp
I was blown away by Jonathan Evison's first novel, All About Lulu and have been eagerly awaiting this new one. While it is a long stretch from a coming of age story to historical fiction, the aspects of Evison's writing that so impressed me are still present in West of Here, expanded and honed even further.
West of Here is a mashup of historical novel and contemporary angst set in the Olympic Peninsula just southwest of Seattle, WA. In November, 1889, James Mather sets out to conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory. He is a 34-year-old Arctic explorer and Indian fighter with an addiction to danger and a compulsion to be the first explorer in any virgin land he enters. It will be the worst winter in the recorded history of Washington.
Other characters from the 1890s include Miss Eva Lambert, a feisty feminist from Chicago, who lives in a utopian community on the peninsula, determined to make her way as a journalist. Ethan Thornburgh, the father of Eva's unborn child, has followed Eva from Chicago, desperate to marry her and to prove to his wealthy father that he is not a loser. He will become famous for building a dam on the main river and bringing electricity to the frontier town of Port Bonita.
Meanwhile, the Klallam Indian tribe suffers the depredations of the white man, losing their lands and falling under the influence of alcohol. The local tavern proprietor provides the alcohol, his chief whore Gertie befriends Eva and a lowly census taker attempts to bring justice to the natives.
A wealth of characters, incident, and intrigue make for a somewhat confusing read at first. To complicate matters further, Evison begins to interweave events from 2006 with characters who turn out to be descendants of the folks from 1890. The reader is required to be something of an explorer as well, with little help from the author, making her own discoveries as she reads. I was thoroughly lost at times, having to check back, comparing dates and names and locations, and trying to decipher the map provided. I even got out my road atlas and studied the Olympic Peninsula, of which I had been previously unaware.
This lost in the wilderness feeling will probably upset some readers and is a big authorial risk, but Evison pulls it off. His writing is robust but terse. He gets right to the kernels of basic personality in each character but adds layers of complexity that bring each person alive. Suddenly I became sympathetic to them all and lived their lives with them. The frontier life, the challenges of weather and wilderness, the tackiness of a modern dying town, all stand out in broad strokes of description with just enough detail.
What I like best about Evison's writing is a dry humor that reminds me of T C Boyle and Michael Chabon. This is historical fiction written in a completely fresh and contemporary style; an approach that ties the present realities of our great but truthfully young country to attributes of our pioneer days. It speaks of consequences without moralizing.
I happened to visit Seattle a week after finishing West of Here. I kept glimpsing the deeper layer of the past through the forests, the industrial parks, and the gentrified neighborhoods. Jonathan Evison did that to me.
(West of Here is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)