Well-plotted, literate novel of the 19th-century settling of a corner of the West and the still-resounding echoes of decisions made long ago.
The Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, Wash., was little known even to Native American people until very recent times, thanks to its “chaos of snow-clad ranges colliding at odd angles, a bulwark of spiny ridges defending a hulking central range like the jaws of a trap.” Those imposing mountains long defied exploration and exploitation, but in time, as sophomore novelist Evison (All About Lulu, 2008) explains, they drew a particular kind of person who just wouldn’t go away, seeing in them the promise of endless wealth. So it is with James Mather, an “Arctic explorer, Indian fighter, and rugged individual” who arrives in the soggy outpost of Port Bonita with orders from the governor to bring the place under the aegis of civilization. Ethan Thornburgh, young and dissolute, has a somewhat different vision: He aims to turn the mountains into money, the better to make the place his own domain. The communitarians (“Weren’t they socialists or something?” asks a latter-day resident of the place, none too well versed in history), squatters and Indians who live nearby have different visions still. Much of Evison’s story—which, naturally, involves a headstrong pioneer woman—is conventional, though, borrowing a page from Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers (1980), it makes room for closely observed notes on American Indian life as seen through the lens of a couple of key players. What brings the story to life, though, is Evison’s juxtaposition of a century past with a much different present, in which the derring-do of our forebears is seen as so much criminality, and the things that they built—particularly dams—as so many insults to the land that require undoing and atonement.
Evison moves his narrative backward and forward through time, taking a leisurely approach to telling a story that is seldom dramatic, but that Westerners will recognize as their own.