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Thursday, September 1, 2011

West of Here: Past, Present and One Giant Dam

On the surface, Jonathan Evison's West of Here is pretty simple: It's the story of the people who inhabit the small fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington. Two dueling story lines from two different times (1890 and 2006) chronicle the fortunes of the folks in the tiny burg located on the northern coast of Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

But when you really dig into the underbrush, you discover an incredibly inventive story that churns along at a deceptively quick pace. Having told you that, it may seem hard to believe that the centerpiece, as well as the central symbol, of the story is a dam. Yep, a dam. But it works, because the dam is really only the unifying force of the various themes of the story. This is a character-driven novel, and these characters are a lot of fun to "watch."

Ethan Thornburgh built the dam in 1890, hoping it'll be the key to putting Port Bonita on the map. Now, Ethan's great-grandson, Jared runs the last remaining processing plant of the town's dying fish industry, bemoaning what he perceives to be his inescapable past. "...he forever lived in the shadow of this obsolete dam, his fortune linked inextricably to its hulking existence, its legacy of ecological menace...Such were the trappings of history."

The dam is a symbol both of progress, as well as attachment to a flawed past. Exploring that idea of the past's link to the present is what drives this story. That in itself is less original than some of the ways Evison chooses to tell the story, sprinkling in a little Native American mysticism, providing a hugely diverse cast of characters, and shifting perspectives among them to keep the story fresh. 

Like Ethan and Jared, each of the novel's character from the 1890s story has a sort of counterpart in the 2006 story. In addition to the past-present link, this also gives Evison fertile ground for examining another main thrust of the story: the age-old nature vs. nurture question — or, as one character asks, "Do you think people are born a certain way? Or do you think people are made?"

West of Here is far from a perfect novel — for instance, there's a scene told from the perspective of a mule about to be shot, which is just silly. And some of the parts in which characters are exploring the peninsula start to sound repetitive — but I really enjoyed it. What you have here is a touch of David Mitchell (in terms of story originality and fluid prose), a sprig or two of David Guterson (in terms of writing about the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest), and a pinch of Richard Russo (in terms of vivid, empathetic writing about small-bust-town life). Give it a try if you're a fan of any of those three novelists, or if you like the dueling past-present storytelling strategy, or if you simply like an original story that explores some common themes in new ways. 

3 comments:

  1. Greg, I also read, reviewed and liked this book. While the plotting was not as tight as I'd I've liked the character development was solid and I thought the prose very, very good.

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  2. . . .ha! yes, i learned the hard way that tight plotting becomes something of an issue with 40+ character arcs . . . but really, for me, there was only one character, and that was the town of port bonita . . . readers who don't see the big picture are likely to be frustrated with the scope of my little epic! . . . thanks for the coverage! . . .oh, and btw, here's a website that actually extends the narrative beyond the novel, with port bonita history, etc:

    http:///www.westofherethebook.com

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