A chance encounter in Oregon’s Willamette Valley forever changes the lives of four people in Gore’s (Crew Dogs, 2016, etc.) love story.
It’s the 1870s, and Bishop Campbell is driving his small wagon, pulled by his two mules, Mutton and Captain, along the Emigrant Road, through the lush valley fed by the Willamette River. He’s been traveling back and forth over this route for the past year, selling his wares (including seeds, plants, fruit trees, and household goods), taking photographs, and transporting mail. One day, he’s absorbed in his own melancholy thoughts when he sees the inebriated Clay Sherwood, who stumbles and then falls onto the road ahead. He pulls up alongside the unconscious man, throws a bucket of cold water on him, and offers him—and his accompanying dog, Griffin—a ride in his wagon. They reach Clay’s house and Bishop meets Clay’s wife, Hattie, and a young orphan, Attavia, who lives with them and helps work the remnants of their once-great farm. Hattie found the girl at the mission at French Prairie, at the same orphanage where she herself lived after her settler parents died. Bishop is entranced with Hattie and makes many return trips to the farm as the novel progresses. The overall story is simple and poignant, but the characters are complex figures, each damaged in some way—physically, emotionally, or psychologically. All are given a chance to tell their own story in one or more chapters. Gore’s evocative prose further enhances the tale, offering haunting images of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who passed through the Willamette in search of a better future. Gore writes, for example, of the crumbling remains of businesses that once served hopeful travelers: “Their weary and trail-worn constituents brought needs but no money with which to fill them, emergencies but few solutions or energies to resolve them.”
A tender and historically informative tale enlivened with vivid imagery and strong characters.