Set in Seattle: John Okada’s NO-NO BOY a Must-Read on the Agonies of American Immigration and Assimilation

Image from the Zinn Education Project

by Michael N. McGregor

When Americans talk about immigration, they tend to have one of two groups in mind: either the crowds of Latin American refugees massing along our southern border today or the waves of Europeans who swept into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Almost entirely forgotten are the Asian immigrants who settled mostly along the West Coast at roughly the same time Europeans were flooding in. Among them, the Chinese suffered the worst early experiences, subjected as they were to humiliations and killings and legislated exclusion from the country. But it was the Japanese, both foreign- and domestic-born, who, in 1942, at the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the only Americans (other than enslaved Blacks) ever rounded up and incarcerated solely because of their ethnicity.

The basic story of Executive Order 9066–by which people of Japanese ancestry (whether American citizens or not) were deprived of their civil rights and forced to leave their homes, businesses, and farms to live in internment camps in desolate areas–is well-known today. Children often learn about it in school. What isn’t generally known or taught, however, is the devastating effect the internment experience and its aftermath had on the minds and lives of those forced to endure it.

Barracks and Water Tower (Minidoka internment camp), Kenjiro Nomura, Tacoma Art Museum

I’ve written about that dark period myself, both here and elsewhere, but my observations were those of an historian, my understanding that of an outsider–until this past month when I finally read a book I’d intended to read for years: John Okada’s No-No Boy.

Before I discuss the book’s content, let me state clearly that No-No Boy is not just a great book about the experiences of Japanese Americans; it’s a great book, period. Not only is it beautifully written, it’s also unflinchingly honest and fair and heartbreaking.

Published in 1957, No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro, a young Japanese American man returning to his hometown of Seattle in 1946. Instead of returning from the war like others in the city’s Japanese community, he is returning from two years in prison, where he was sent for answering ‘no’ to two questions every young man of Japanese descent was asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States? Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the country? (His answers are the no-no of the book’s title.)

The first thing that happens to Ichiro when he reaches Seattle is a former acquaintance who did serve in the military spits on him. Worse is yet to come as he faces accusations of treason and betrayal as well as the doubts, regrets, and shame in his own mind.

While Ichiro is always central, part of what makes the book so good and devastating (as well as pertinent to discussions about immigrants today) is how well and fairly Okada renders not only Ichiro’s psychological state but those of everyone he encounters–from immigrants like his mother who remain devoted to Japan to the whites who have little idea what someone like Ichiro is going through.

Some in the book are kind and some are cruel, but no one is reduced to a type or a category. All have their reasons for all acting and speaking the way they do. And Okada gives them all their due, even those who seem most awful.

Okada wasn’t afraid to interrogate his own culture as well as the larger white culture around it, or to drill down into the various sicknesses and cruelties at the family and interpersonal levels.

Rendered in a voice that’s both distinctive and perfectly in tune with its time and characters, Okada’s willingness to look unflinchingly at how people truly think and treat each other makes No-No Boy one of those rare books—like Stoner or Revolutionary Road—that seem to hold the raw and bloody heart of life in their hands.

Image from fullerton.edu

Here, for example, is Ichiro thinking about his younger brother, Taro, who detests him for not serving in the military and plans to enter the post-war army himself:

Taro, my brother who is not my brother, you are no better than I. You are only more fortunate that the war years found you too young to carry a gun. You are fortunate like the thousands of others who, for various reasons of age and poor health and money and influence, did not happen to be called to serve in the army, for their answers might have been the same as mine. And you are fortunate because the weakness which was mine made the same weakness in you the strength to turn your back on Ma and Pa and make it so frighteningly urgent for you to get into uniform to prove you are not a part of me. I was born not soon enough or not late enough and for that I have been punished. It is not just, but it is true. I am not one of those who wait for the ship from Japan with baggage ready, yet the hundreds who do are freer and happier and fuller than I. I am not to blame but you blame me and for that I hate you and I will hate you more when you go into the army and come out and walk the streets of America as if you owned them always and forever.

Laid out in this book, in sometimes agonizing, sometimes breathtaking clarity, is the immigrant experience: the awful decisions and compromises and consequences America demands of those who seek only to be accepted, fully and respectfully, as fellow citizens.

John Okada in 1957, the year No-No Boy was published. Image from the University of Washington Magazine.

A few links:

  • John Okada’s personal story is as agonizing as that of the main character in his only novel. You can read about his difficult life and what became of his second book in “The Legacy of No-No Boy” by Vince Schleitwiler, published in the December 2019 issue of University of Washington Magazine.
  • Densho, a website whose mission is to “preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.”

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Northwest Indigenous Artist Sky Hopinka Receives 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant”

Sky Hopinka, Artist and Filmmaker, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

by Michael N. McGregor

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my old colleagues at Portland State University telling me a former student, Sky Hopinka, had been awarded a 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” When I looked him up, I was pleased to see that his art is centered in the experience of indigenous people, including some from the Northwest.

Hopinka not only earned his BA from PSU but was born in Ferndale, Washington. And while his work in film, photography, and poetry is wide-ranging, several of his videos focus on Northwest indigenous life.

His first feature-length film, “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), for example, is set entirely in the Northwest world of its two indigenous protagonists.

An image from “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

Here’s a brief description from a New York Times review by Beatrice Loayza:

The documentary, anchored in the Chinookan origin-of-death myth (a dialogue between a wolf and a coyote about the afterlife), separately follows two young parents — pregnant Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both friends of Hopinka’s — as they grapple with questions of legacy and identity.

Subtitles switch between English and Chinook jargon, yet the oral component (including Hopinka’s narration) occasionally fades into the backdrop with sound design that amplifies the crackling of a fire, the bubbling and thrashing of the ocean and waterfalls.

The natural world, with its never-ending tides and its cycles of life and death, provides a framework for the preservation of Indigenous culture, resilient despite its new forms and manifestations.

In reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. ‘s good (free) review for the Film Stage website, he calls “maɬni ” an “elegiac and at times mesmerizing feature debut.” His review gives a good description of the film’s content, including the ways Hopinka challenges traditional white use of ethnographic documentary to “exoticize non-Western communities.”

You can watch the entire film at The Criterion Collection, which offers a free 14-day trial.

For a shorter look at Hopinka’s vision of the Northwest, try “Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary,” a 13-minute video available for free on his website.

Here’s how he describes this shorter work: “Images and representations of two structures in the Portland Metropolitan Area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of chinuk wawa, the Chinookan creole, chinuk wawa.”

According to the bio on his website, Hopinka is from the Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, but during his days in Portland he both studied and taught chinuk wawa (Chinook jargon).

Hopinka’s work has appeared at numerous festivals, including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. It has also been part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 2018 FRONT Triennial, and Prospect.5 in 2021. It will be exciting to see what his MacArthur Fellowship allows him to do next.

In a conversation with Theo Anthony published in Filmmaker Magazine, he said this about his work:

“[E]mpathy is something I think a lot about. It’s also the relationship, as Adam Khalil put it, between knowledge and information around indigenous cultures. What does it mean to know something, and what does it mean to have facts about something or a culture or a community? And as I try to not explain things, I’m hoping that through context or the things that are nearby, an audience will be able to understand how I feel about them, or place themselves in a certain empathetic space where they may not know what’s going on, but they know how to feel about it.”

More links:

Sky Hopinka’s full bio

Interviews with Sky Hopinka and links to more reviews of his works

A full list of 2022’s MacArthur Fellowship recipients

How a Fashion Trend Led to an Eastern Oregon Bloodbath–and How It Was Stopped

Photograph courtesy of the Audubon Society.

Few people other than outdoorsy Oregonians and avid birders had ever heard of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon before Ammon Bundy and his gang of armed militants occupied it for six weeks in the early days of 2016. Some feared at the time that the occupation would lead to bloodshed in a pristine environment.

What they didn’t know was that the refuge had already been the site of a massive bloodbath a hundred years before.

From the late 19th C through the early years of the 20th C, one of history’s most dismaying fashion trends was the wearing of feathers and even entire birds on women’s hats. According to historian Douglas Brinkley, at the height of this trend more than five million birds were being slaughtered each year in the name of fashion.

Images from the Pacific Standard website.

During just two walks down the streets of Manhattan in 1866, ornithologist Frank Chapman spied the feathers of at least 40 kinds of birds on hundreds of hats, including Grebes, Virginia Rails, California Quail, Pileated Woodpeckers, Bobolinks, Scarlet Tanagers, Meadowlarks and Cedar Waxwings.

More popular than all of these, however, were the feathers of Herons and Swans and especially the Great and Snowy Egrets, all of which could be found in the remote wetlands in and around what would one day become the Malheur refuge. The slaughter there was well under way when two of Oregon’s earliest environmentalist, William L. Finley and Hermany T. Bohlman, began to catalogue it and work to end it.

According to author Carey Myles, who writes about Finley and Bohlman in a chapter called “The Plume Defenders” in a new book about Oregon birding (A History of Oregon Ornithology, Oregon State University Press, 2022), the pair first arrived in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake area in the summer of 1905, tasked by the National Association of Audubon Societies with “documenting species though notes and photographs, and determining conditions for birds.”

Flocks of birds, Malheur Lake, photograph by William L. Finley, 1908. Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

Having traveled on horseback from Ashland, Oregon, “carrying camping equipment, three cameras and 700 glass plates,” they created a blind with a large umbrella and a surrounding ring of green canvas and focused first on photographing American White Pelicans. In the hot, cramped interior, the two took turns bent over a large camera, photographing for up to eight hours a day before moving on to other species.

As Myles writes:

It wasn’t until spring and summer of 1908 that Finley and Bohlman were able to complete their inspection of Oregon’s interior wetlands by visiting Malheur Lake and the surrounding marshes. They were overwhelmed by the richness of birdlife they found there, but also dismayed to find that such remote marshes had been significantly impacted by market hunting…

They discovered a Western Grebe nesting ground shortly after plume hunters had been through. Finley and Bohlman were enraged to find the bodies of dead birds with just the soft breast feathers removed. Still, they kept the goal of using photographs to argue for conservation in mind. Finding a dead grebe in the water next to two downy, hungry chicks sitting in their nest, they took multiple photographs, taking care over the composition.

Their photographs, with the bird’s blood colored red, were used as lantern slides for Audubon Society lectures about the evils of the plume trade. According to the Friends of Malheur website, “their photographs and testimony caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt,” who eventually signed an executive order designating 80,000 acres around Mud, Harney and Malheur Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds”–one of 51 bird reserves Roosevelt established during his presidency.

A local family with their harvest of swans. Image from the Friends of Malheur website.

Ten years later, in 1918, the United States and Canada enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell” any of the birds on a list of 1,100 species. The list covers almost every bird in North America (with limited exceptions for hunting and non-native species). To this day, it is against the law to even possess anything connected to these birds, including their feathers, eggs and nests.

Today, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a rare and beautiful wetlands area teeming with birds of all kinds. For a list of species and information on what you’ll see there in different seasons, click here. And for directions on how to visit, click here.

Image from the Portland Community College website.

A few more links:

A History of Oregon Ornithology: From Territorial Days to the Rise of Birding, edited by Alan L. Contreras, Vjera E. Thompson, and Nolan M. Clements, with a link for ordering from Oregon State University Press (2022, $34.95)

Refuge history page on the Friends of Malheur website

Oregon History Project page about the Finley photograph shown above, with suggestions for further reading

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Explained,”on the Audubon Society’s website

National Resources Defense Council webpage on recent threats to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Plume Trade,” the gory details about the slaughtering of birds and how it was stopped

Hats Off to Women Who Saved the Birds,” a fascinating article by PBS on how women, who were being blamed for the slaughter, took the initiative to end it

Portland the Spinster

A three-week road trip through parts of the Midwest and Canada (including Chatham, Ontario, where the subject of my next biography–J. D. Ross–grew up) has kept me from posting anything for a while. But I’m back in the Northwest now and I just came across a May 19, 1917, article published in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly, entitled “Portland the Spinster.”

Intrigued? Me too. I always enjoy seeing how outsiders view the Northwest. This particular piece was written by a Californian named Wilbur Hall, who seems to have done little beyond this kind of magazine writing.

Hall begins with a wide-angle view of the lush Willamette Valley and its nearby mountains before zeroing on the people of Portland who, he says, “speak aggrievedly and as children disappointed when the peaks are veiled with clouds.” Having established a condescending tone, he quickly moves on to his main point: that Portland is like a reclusive, persnickety and somewhat risable woman–in his parlance, a “spinster.”

Image from Clipart Library.

Hall attributes the city’s spinster-ness to the continued, conservative control of the FFPs–the First Families of Portland, or, as he calls them again and again, “the Corbetts and the Failings and the Ladds and the Lewises and the Flanderses and the Hoyts and their kind.”

Waiting on the “approving nod of these families” he writes, are “questions of municipal harbor bonds, a mayor’s election, the Drama League, the repainting of the church, women’s smoking, the length of bathing costumes, and the absence of length in street skirts, prohibition, the location of the First National Bank, the conduct of our war against the I. W. W., pure-milk campaigns, the tango, the movie, the treatment to be accorded anarchists, strangers, holy men, fakers, new doctrines, new art, new thought, new life.”

According to Hall, the rest of Portland’s population “is built from two quite different classes, yet with many characteristics in common that would combine to give any community a flavor of provincialism.”

The first to arrive, he writes, were “powerful, slow, industrious, gentle, lovable people from the north of Europe–Swedes and Danes and Norwegians–drawn into this country of timber by the irresistible force of traditional vocation.”

The second were “families threatened by the maelstrom of the early days of the Rebellion–border-State folk without sympathy to attach them to the heroic flags of the South or conviction to carry them into the zealous ranks of the North. They were neither cowards nor shirkers, probably–just silent, unimaginative, unconcerned agriculturalists, for whom moving was cheaper and easier and safer than fighting or standing between those who fought.”

Image from Clipart Library.

In sum, the city was composed of fusty overlords and slow, unimaginative sheep.

Yet in Hall’s time, Portland had a very different reputation in some circles. It was known as the birth place of the Oregon System, which put political power in the hands of the people. How did he account for that?

Yes, Portland did hold the reins of power in the state, he allowed, and it was difficult to “square the [city’s] tendency toward reaction with the fact of progressivism.” But he had an answer for it:

“It happened that they had in their midst able leaders, ahead of their times. It happened also that there was a group of strong and consistent radicals among them–men of unusual ability, of high standing in the community, and of pronouncedly revolutionary schools. My notion is that the hidebound conservatives who dominate Portland when they exert themselves were caught napping in those early days when the direct-legislation triplets–initiative, referendum, and recall–were brought forth for the first time. Woman suffrage, prohibition, protective and regulatory measures of State socialization, came in in a rush. Before the conservatives woke up, Oregon was committed to an out-and-out progressive program. And now no one, not even the conservatives themselves, would be willing to go back to the older system.”

Image from the Oregon Secretary of State website.

In other words, Portland’s conservative FFPs were lazy and hoodwinked but simply said, “Oh, well” when they found themselves in a new system.

There is much to smile at in Hall’s depiction of a city he wants to dismiss as being unworthy of comparison to his own Los Angeles. But at least he comes close to getting Portland’s rain right:

“As nearly as I can get at it, Portland doesn’t have so much real rain–not in inches; it just seems to have. As I understand it, Portland’s rains are scattered more or less evenly through the year, sunshine and downpour being doled out in climactic layers. I was assured by Portlanders, not only that no one minds the rain, but that they don’t have a really wet rain.”

Image from Clipart Library.

More Than a Dozen Books About the Pacific Northwest Are Finalists for Today’s Washington State Book Awards

When the winners of the 2022 Washington State Book Awards are announced today, books set in or focused on the Pacific Northwest are sure to be among the winners.

The awards–given out by the Washington Center for the Book (an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, administered by the Washington State Library)–are intended only to honor “outstanding books published by Washington authors in 2021,” whatever their subject matter. But, of course, many Washington authors choose to write about this fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

This year’s list of finalists includes more than a dozen books that touch in some way on the Northwest. (My count is based on what I could determine by reading each book’s description, so there may be more.)

While the awards are “based on the strength of the publication’s literary merit, lasting importance and overall quality,” the judges all come from Washington, so having your book set in the Northwest can’t hurt, right?

Here’s a list of the Northwest-related finalists, some of which I’ll be reviewing on the WNW site in the coming weeks (just click on the title for a description):

2022 WSBA FINALISTSBOOKS FOR ADULTS

Biography/Memoir

Creative Nonfiction

Fiction

General Nonfiction

Poetry

2022 WSBA FINALISTS–BOOKS FOR YOUTH

Picture Books

Books for Young Readers

For a full list of this year’s finalists and more about this year’s awards, including judges, click here.

Sept. 14 Postscript: Here’s the list of the winners, along with links for ordering them: Edmonds Bookshop.

Congratulations to all of these fine writers, both finalists and award winners!

“One of the Greatest Americans of Our Generation”–The Subject of My Next Biography: J. D. Ross

James Delmage (J. D.) Ross shortly after he arrived in Seattle.

by Michael N. McGregor

When James Delmage Ross died suddenly on March 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt mourned his passing by telling the country it had lost “one of the greatest Americans of our generation,” a man whose “successful career and especially his long service in behalf of the public interest are worthy of study by every American boy.”

Yet “J. D.,” as he was called by everyone who knew him—from the president to senators to children in his neighborhood—is virtually unknown today. Even in Seattle, where he was once the city’s most powerful—and popular—figure, those who recognize his name know it only because a dam and lake on the Upper Skagit River were dedicated to him.

Map of Seattle City Light hydroelectric projects on the Skagit River, including the dam and lake named after J. D. Ross.

In the Depression years, however, as the nation suffered the aftermath of predatory practices by private companies, Ross became known across the land as a tireless advocate for publicly-owned electrical power. FDR held him in such high regard, he chose him to sit on the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep tabs on the country’s private power companies, and then to serve as the first superintendent of the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the most important strategic positions in the years leading up to World War II.

By then, Ross had built Seattle City Light into one of the world’s model municipally-owned power systems and championed changes to both the production and distribution of electricity that reduced power rates to a fraction of what they had once been. He had also toured the country for years, making the case for public control over the nation’s electrical grid.

FDR quote on J. D. Ross’s tomb.

If the country had listened to him—or he had lived longer—there’s no doubt our power system would be in much better shape than it is today and people everywhere would understand FDR’s words of praise.

A self-taught electrical engineer who rose from humble beginnings to become the ideal civil servant and a close friend of the 20th century’s most powerful president, Ross is the kind of figure whose story—and example—we need today. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing the first biography to ever be written of him.

A Seattle newspaper’s report on the tributes and crowds at Ross’s funeral

My work on Ross is being supported, in part, by the Oregon Historical Society’s 2022 Donald J. Sterling Senior Research Award in Pacific Northwest History. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting more about my finds in the months of research I’ve already done, as well as updates as the research and writing continue.

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook–or go to my personal website, michaelnmcgregor.com–you’ll see images in the coming days from Ross’s hometown of Chatham, Ontario, once known as the Black Mecca because it served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad. His journey from Chatham to Seattle began in 1897 when he walked—walked!—from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Klondike gold fields after a doctor told him his lungs were failing and he needed more exercise.

Stay tuned for future updates!

Guest Post: The Pacific Northwest’s First (and Forgotten) National Literary Star–Ella Rhoads Higginson

by Dr. Laura Laffrado

Portrait by Edward Curtis (courtesy of The Ella Higginson Blog).

[Dr. Laura Laffrado is a Professor of English at Western Washington University. Her full bio can be found at the end of her essay.]

In the last decades of the 19th century, the Pacific Northwest, especially the far corner of northwestern Washington, was a remote place where it was hard to earn a living and difficult to find the leisure to write, even if you were literate. If someone did manage to write something, the region was so distant from Northeastern publishing centers, there was little chance the writing would be published and even less that it would achieve literary success.

Yet there was one writer there—a woman—who was not only being published but winning national awards for her work. The Chicago Tribune claimed she had “the hallmark of genius.” The San Francisco Chronicle said her characters were “as strong, as individual, as any created by Dickens or Thackeray.” Others compared her writings to those of Jane Austen, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, and Leo Tolstoy.

1901 clipping from the Evening Report in Pennsylvania (courtesy of The Ella Higginson Blog).

She was, in fact, the first Northwest writer to be nationally—and even internationally—recognized, a woman who, according to the Kansas City Star “revealed the wildness and witchery of that northwestern corner where, watched by immemorial pines, Puget Sound lies sparkling in the clean air, and the horizon sweeps down to the great blue ocean.” For readers across the country, she put the Northwest on the literary map.

Yet today Ella Rhoads Higginson is almost completely unknown. 

When I first stumbled upon Higginson’s substantial holdings in the Washington State archives a few years ago, I was stunned, confused, excited, and nearly overwhelmed by unanswered questions. Who was this woman I’d never heard of? What kinds of things had she written? What could the twelve linear feet of her archive possibly contain? Why hadn’t I heard of her?

As I dove into researching her life and work, I learned that many people across the nation and around the world were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest when they read Higginson’s award-winning writing. Her descriptions of the majestic mountains, vast forests, and scenic waters made the distant and unfamiliar Northwest captivating. “Here comes a woman,” Philadelphia’s Globe Quarterly Review said, “all the way from Seattle, breathing the air of the Western mountains and seas.”

A few of Ella Higginson’s many books (courtesy of Laura Laffrado)

Remarkably, in her almost 80 years of life, Higginson (1862?-1940) authored over eight hundred works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. She was published by the prestigious Macmillan Company in New York, earned best-story prizes from popular magazines such as Collier’s and McClure’s, and was Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Popular composers set her poems to music and celebrated singers, including the great Enrico Caruso, performed and recorded them.

By the time Higginson died, however, both she and her work had been forgotten.

Higginson’s writings were especially notable in her day because they were set in Oregon and Washington, with infrequent forays into Alaska, British Columbia, and Idaho. At the time, the Northwest was not only remote and thinly populated but also largely male, and Eastern readers were captivated by it, especially as described by a woman.

Higginson’s first publication came in 1876, when an Oregon newspaper printed one of her poems. She was 14 years old. By then, her family had moved west from Kansas, where she was born. Although she attended public school, she was privately tutored and benefited from her parents’ substantial library. She might have become known exclusively as an Oregon writer if she hadn’t married Russell Carden Higginson (a distant cousin of New England author and editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson) in 1885 and moved with him to what is now Bellingham, Washington, where she lived the rest of her life.

It was a poem, too, that first earned Higginson a national reputation. When “Four-Leaf Clover” was published in 1890, it quickly became a nationwide—and then international—sensation. Appearing in periodicals and on postcards (see below), greeting cards, calendars, paper weights, and other ephemera, it was also set repeatedly to music. Even today, it is the one piece of writing her name is still connected to.

A postcard featuring Higginson’s most popular poem (courtesy of Laura Laffrado).

A savvy promoter of her own work, Higginson played on the popularity of her breakthrough poem every way she could. She named her dog Clover and her house Clover Hill. She wore four-leaf-clover jewelry and led an unsuccessful campaign for the wild clover to be named the official Washington State flower. She had four-leaf clovers imprinted on many of her books’ covers and used them on her bookplates. She even wrote a literary column for the Seattle Times called “Clover Leaves.”

But although “Four-Leaf Clover” was incredibly popular, it was only a tiny part of her body of work. Among her most important books are the short-story collections From the Land of the Snow Pearls (1897; originally published in 1896 as The Flower That Grew in the Sand) and A Forest Orchid (1897), the poetry collections When the Birds Go North Again (1898) and The Voice of April-Land (1903), and her one completed novel, Mariella, of Out-West (1902), which some reviewers called the best novel of the season.

Her last book, the literary travelogue Alaska, the Great Country (1908), was called essential reading for any intrepid traveler headed north to Alaska.

All of these books sold well, ran through multiple printings, and were positively reviewed nationally and internationally. However, like many once-popular women writers, Higginson’s literary star dimmed in the early 20th century. Her books went out of print and her fame faded. Near the end of her life, aggrieved at being forgotten, she wrote on a folder of saved correspondence, “Letters from famous folks; and from publishers, proving that I didn’t need to seek publishers—they sought me.” (Emphasis in original).

Higginson died at 78 on December 27, 1940, and is buried in Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, beneath a self-designed granite marker featuring four-leaf clovers, quotations from her poetry, and the proud line, “Ella Higginson, Poet-Writer.” It seemed at the time that no one would know her name or her work again.

Fortunately, though, after decades of obscurity, Higginson and her work have been rediscovered, not only by me but by other scholars and readers. Her writings are even being taught in high school and college courses today. Much remains to be done, however, to return her to the prominent position she deserves, as the first of the Pacific Northwest’s literary stars.

A few links:

Dr. Laffrado’s book: Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature

The Ella Higginson Blog–maintained by Dr. Laura Laffrado (lots of great stuff here, including lists of Higginson’s works and news of current writing about her.)

Dr. Laura Laffrado page at Western Washington University.

Ella Higginson site maintained by WWU.

Ella Rhoads Higginson bio at Oxford Bibliographies.

Ella Higginson entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia.

Ella Higginson books for sale! (Disclosure: WNW is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, we will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.)

~~~~~

Dr. Laura Laffrado is an award-winning Professor of English at Western Washington University. Among her books are Uncommon Women: Gender and Representation in Nineteenth-Century US Women’s Writing and her most recent book, Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature, which received the Society for the Study of American Women Writers 2018 Edition Award. She is currently at work on a biography of Pacific Northwest writer Ella Rhoads Higginson.

Book Review: Exploring the Unknowable in Peter Rock’s PASSERSTHROUGH

Most bankable fiction writers—those whose books become bestsellers and sometimes movies—rely on conventional storytelling and character development to affect their readers. But there are other, often-more-intriguing authors who rely more on mood or mystery or simply fine writing. They may not reach a wide audience, but they’re adept at subverting our expectations, fracturing our vision, and helping us see life in a new way.

Portland writer Peter Rock has had plenty of writing success—his 2009 novel My Abandonment, about a girl who lives off the grid with her father in an urban forest, was made into a major motion picture (“Leave No Trace”) and subsequently became a bestseller—but in his latest work,  in particular, he has tended to be the second kind of author.

In his last two novels—2019’s The Night Swimmers and this year’s Passersthrough (both published by Soho Press)—Rock has used a spare, allusive style to focus closely on a small number of characters in a limited situation while suggesting that there is more going on around them than they or the reader can know, some of it possibly supernatural.

This approach can create a feeling of disorientation, a sense that you’re not understanding something important to the story. But if you release your mind from the need to be certain of everything at every moment, the mood and mystery can take over, allowing you to immerse yourself in Rock’s precise and often beautiful evocations of places, experiences, and sensations.

Even more than The Night Swimmers, set mostly in Wisconsin, Passersthrough, with its often-wild Northwest locales, explores the things we can’t know no matter how much we try, as well as our continued desire to uncover them.

The book begins with what seems at first to be a conventional story: An older man, Ben, and his estranged daughter, Helen, are trying to reconnect. Ben lives in Portland and Helen in California, so she has installed a device in his home that gives her a transcription of anything he says into it, and she speaks to him, in turn, by fax or phone or during the occasional visit.

Their “conversation,” mediated mostly by technology, centers primarily on what did or didn’t happen 25 years ago, when Helen was 11 and Ben sometimes took her into the woods. At some point something traumatic resulted. What it was isn’t entirely clear—to the reader or even the characters.

Photo by Michael N. McGregor

About all Ben and Helen agree on is that he had her walk blindfolded into the woods, left her overnight in a lean-to, and somehow lost track of her. A week later, she emerged far from where he last saw her. The only specific details we’re given are those of the girl’s rescue, which come courtesy of an old newspaper article Rock inserts into the text. Whatever happened, it caused his estrangement from his daughter to begin.

The rest of Passersthrough is, in many ways, an elaboration on this situation, but nothing is even this plain again. While walking near his house one day, Ben is attacked by a dog and befriended by the dog’s owner, a woman named Melissa who—along with her brother, Cisco—inserts herself into his life. It’s never quite clear whether they’re grifters or sincerely interested in helping him or maybe just the passersthrough of the book’s title.

As the story continues, it becomes less and less certain what perspective we’re seeing things from, and even what reality is. Rock sets several later scenes in the alluring but forbidding landscape around Mt. Hood, presenting it as a shadowy place of beauty, mystery, and danger.

Photo by Michael N. McGregor

The lean-to reappears, as does a lake from the older story that seems to move around. They’re joined by two children who died in a fire and the mother of a fawn Melissa has killed and carved up. When Ben, who has remained mostly passive throughout the book, makes an act of will near the end, the remaining fragments of story disintegrate further, becoming a series of incantatory images and feelings.

Does it all add up? Rock seems less interested in tying things together than giving us shards we can try to assemble ourselves…or maybe just leave as they are: signs of the possibilities around us and in us, as well as the unknowability of so much in life. Especially other people.

Passersthrough

Peter Rock

Soho Press

2022

$26 (hardcover)

Order here: Writing the Northwest Bookshop.org page

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Guest Post: Restoring Biodiversity in an Oregon Ravine

by Dr. Paul Otto

[Dr. Paul Otto is a professor of History at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. His full bio can be found at the end of his essay.]

Image courtesy of pxhere.com.

My partner, Lynn, recently published a wistful poem, “In this Green Green So Blue,” inspired by a camping experience in a pocket of Oregon old-growth forest with “vine maples and huckleberries,” “ferns and firs,” and “pale green streamers of moss” hanging from the trees. When we moved to Oregon from the Great Plains years ago, we soaked up this kind of natural environment whenever possible, having been starved of it while sojourning amid soy fields and corn rows.

Our new Oregon home struck a fine balance between the convenience of connection to town and engagement with the wild. The creek behind it emptied into the Willamette River, Douglas firs fringed the grounds, and big-leaf maples shaded the yard in summer. Best of all, our children could explore the broad ravine at the back of our lot. 

At first, it was enough that the trees were green and the landscape was wild. But in time I began to regret my ignorance of the native flora. I knew Douglas firs, of course, but I was more familiar with the invasive blackberries and English ivy than the maples, snowberry, and various ferns endemic to the area. I knew better than to think in terms of “natural” vs. “cultivated,” but a full appreciation of the native biodiversity escaped me.

After a bit of study, though, I began to understand what “belonged” and what didn’t. I learned about big leaf maples and vine maples; about red elderberry and oceanspray; about sword, lady, and bracken ferns—all of which grew in our ravine. And my learning made me appreciate them.

I gained insight, too, into native and invasive fauna—discovering, for example, that the squirrels I saw were eastern fox squirrels, one of two non-native tree squirrels introduced into Oregon’s urban areas in the early twentieth century. From there they expanded outward, especially into nut orchards and forests, driving out the native species. Among the native varieties are the Douglas squirrel and the northern flying squirrel, which glide on air better than they walk on the ground.

Eastern fox squirrel. Image courtesy of pxhere.

I’ve seen Douglas squirrels in other parts of the state, and Lynn saw a northern flying squirrel while growing up in Washington State, but my only sighting of a native squirrel on my own property—a western grey squirrel—in 20 years of living on the edge of a forested creek came 15 years ago. More competitive and faster to replicate, the fox squirrels drove the natives out long ago.

Hoping that challenging the fox squirrels’ dominance in one part of the forest might make room for the return of western grey squirrels or Douglas squirrels, I’ve tried various methods of rousting them from my yard, including shooting them with a pellet gun. Some members of my family protested, though, finding the killing of any animal inconsistent with a general embrace of nature and its ongoing gift of life.

I respect the position of those who hold that the killing of any animal is wrong, but in terms of restoring ecological balance, I’m not sure it’s viable. Even the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is opposed to relocating or even rehabilitating non-native fauna, dictating that injured invasive animals must be euthanized rather than medically treated.

The strongest protest I heard questioned the whole idea of “invasive” species, comparing it to the denigration of immigrants to the United States. I understand the analogy—I myself am part of an “invasive species,” those who not only came from elsewhere but killed and displaced the Native population.

Of course, racial and ethnic differences aren’t the same as differences in species, but human beings as a species are invasive everywhere we go. Technological ability, complex social patterns, and advanced thought have empowered us to establish ourselves anywhere we want to. If there was ever a time a being resembling humans lived in equilibrium with other species, it was hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago.

Yes, many Indigenous groups have lived in greater ecological harmony with their surroundings than colonizing groups, but human beings have always changed the land to one degree or another. As I’ve become better acquainted with Oregon over the past two decades, I’ve come to understand the difference between a natural order that develops slowly without the invasive hand of humans and one that is little more than not having a lot of people around. That old-growth campground that inspired Lynn’s poem helped me see this.

On the surface, what old-growth forests offer are big trees to gush about. But if you compare them with re-established forests, you’ll soon note a great diversity of flora (and fauna). Along the western flanks of Oregon’s Cascades, the oldest forests contain a mix of conifers and deciduous trees, with Douglas firs, cedars, and hemlocks cohabitating with big leaf maples, Oregon ash, and alders. The understory reflects this diversity, with red huckleberries, thimbleberries, blue and red elderberries, and Oregon grape. Closer to the ground you’ll find even more variety: trillium, wood sorrel, false Solomon’s seal, and a whole host of wildflowers I haven’t begun to learn the names of. Added to this botanical display are a wide array of animals.

What’s missing from this picture? Himalayan blackberries, English ivy, and other invasive species, which once made up most of the greenery in that ravine behind my house. Poking out of the mass were a few ferns, firs, and big leaf maple, but generally it was a tangled mess of bramble and vines.

Early in the process, a friend helps Paul build steps near newly transplanted Douglas fir and sword ferns; the upper bank still covered in English ivy. Photo by Paul Otto.

About 10 years ago, however, I began to restore the uncultivated parts of my property to something closer to its original botanical diversity. My community’s “trees for streams” program helped me in this project by providing free native grasses, shrubs, and trees. In those ten years, I’ve seen a huge transformation that has made this part of my lot far more appealing.

Why, you might ask, should I favor native plants over non-natives? Am I just being a purist? I don’t think so. Native plants not only increase biodiversity but also foster a healthier landscape. On my lot, for example, insufficient shade allowed blackberries to thrive. Along with the English ivy, the blackberries prevented other trees and shrubs from growing and providing cover. Exposed to the sun, the creek warmed. Without my restoration efforts, the ravine would have fewer trees, less wildlife, and a warmer, dwindling stream.

The upper bank is now dominated by sword ferns; great horn owls nest in the firs above. Photo by Paul Otto

Now, however, the creek is increasingly shaded by Oregon ash, rose spirea, and an impressively fast-growing cottonwood. Two western red cedars and a growing understory of ninebark, flowering red currant, thimbleberries, and vine maples cover the hillsides. The variety of ferns has expanded to include deer and maidenhair ferns.

We’ve seen an expansion of wildlife, too. Great horned owls have taken up residence—evidence of a growing rodent population. Because the stream runs deeper and cooler, great blue herons are feeding there. And my wildlife camera has captured video of the illusive grey fox.

Employment and other considerations limit my choices about where to live, but I can choose how I live in the space where I reside. My choice is to work with the ecosystem and not against it. I’m not trying to recreate a pristine wilderness, only reverse (or at least slow down) the impact of others’ choices.

Perhaps my efforts at controlling the eastern fox squirrel population have been misguided or ineffectual, but I know that cultivating a natural space by removing invasive plants and replacing them with natives has helped rebuild a longstanding but sensitive ecosystem. And in restoring this natural order, I find that I’ve been restoring myself.

A great blue heron visits the restored ravine; downstream, unrestored stream bank on neighboring properties. Video by Paul Otto

A couple of links:

Native vs. invasive plant species in OR

Native vs. invasive animals in OR

Dr. Paul Otto is a professor of History at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. An expert in the history of early America and Native Americans, he has authored The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley and is currently writing a history of the use and development of wampum in the colonial northeast in the 17th & 18th centuries. An avid user of role-immersion pedagogy known as Reacting to the Past, he is also at work on several of his own scenarios.

Book Review: A “Coast Salish Punk” Tells Her Own Story

There are many reasons white narratives have long shaped our understanding of Native history and even contemporary Native lives. One, of course, is the lack of pre-contact writings by Indigenous people. Another is the suppression of Native voices during the white conquest of the two American continents. A third is the presumptuousness of even sympathetic white writers—from James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) to Margaret Craven (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, 1967)—in depicting Native life while featuring white protagonists.

A fourth, less-obvious reason is the concentration of a white-dominated publishing industry in the Northeastern part of the United States, where few of the country’s 7 million Indigenous people live.

One result of the U. S. government’s early cruelty toward pre-existing populations, including the vile Indian Removal Act of 1830, was a concentration of Native people west of the Mississippi, where the writers among them had fewer chances to hobnob and network with editors and agents.

Sunset on Puget Sound, Edward Curtis, courtesy of Northwestern University Libraries, Digital Collections

Fortunately, the development of the internet, the assertion of marginalized voices in recent years, and a rising awareness of the need to expand and diversify the American literary conversation have led to more Native authors being published today than ever before. And the writing they’re publishing is less concerned with elder wisdom or lamentations for the devastation wrought by white conquest than sharp-eyed critique of contemporary life.

While elder wisdom and lamentations still inform this new work, the writing is wider-ranging and harder-hitting, bolder and yet subtler, more engaged with the broader culture while retaining a personal connection to the histories and customs of particular tribes and regions.

A prime example is Red Paint, a memoir by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, whose subtitle—The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk—tells you right away it isn’t a conventional narrative. Although LaPointe has spent her life on her ancestors’ traditional lands, she has lived most of it within the American cities and cultures laid on top of them. In fact, at times her story becomes a Schliemann-like excavation of artifacts from the many historical periods in her native Northwest.

Author image from inside the book.

LaPointe isn’t interested in being a representative Indian, however, or even an interpreter or defender for her ancestors. Although, in places, she explores the lives and struggles of those who came before her, she mostly tells her own story—one that includes sexual and substance abuse, homelessness and rootlessness, betrayal and loss, but also hopefulness, friendship, love, and underground music.

LaPointe’s referents are as likely to be the Twin Peaks TV show or the punk group Bikini Kill as the healers of her mother’s Lushootseed tribe or the Chinook ancestor who survived her people’s destruction by marrying a white man. She isn’t seeking a return to some mythic past but rather a home, a permanence, a self-definition that seems to have eluded not only her but her people.

After finding the reservation trailer she lived in as a child in ruins, for example, she muses on what a permanent home for someone like her might be. “Reservations should not have been a permanent home,” she writes. “Like trailers, like campgrounds, like prisons or hospitals, they felt temporary, like some place you go between places. I realized I wasn’t sure what permanence looked like, because we weren’t meant to survive. My family, my tribe, my ancestors, we were something temporary to the settlers, something that would eventually go away.”

Later in the book, after visiting an even older abode, she realizes she’s sick of trying to fit a white world’s expectations of what a Native American woman should be:

“I was tired of being brave. I would rather be something else. Carefree? An aging millennial. Someone who enjoys listening to the Cranberries and Cyndi Lauper on road trips down the coast. Call me a writer. Call me a riot grrrl. Call me Coast Salish or poet. Call me a girl who loves Nick Cave, and night swimming, and ramen, and old Bikini Kill records. I no longer wish to be called resilient. Call me reckless, impatient, and emotional. Even Indigenous. Call me anything other than survivor. I am so many more things than brave.”

In the end, Red Paint is mainly what any good memoir should be: an exploration of the self—how it’s built from intention, experience, malice, carelessness, heritage, family, love, and belief, as well as the accidents that impact each of us as we navigate our broken world.

~~~~~

Related links:

“Coast Salish People & Languages” from Seattle’s Burke Museum (scroll down for a map of the Coast Salish lands)

Edward Curtis’s early 20th-century photographs of the Coast Salish people (click on any picture to enlarge the image)

Information (& an artist’s drawing) on a Coast Salish tribes/Western Washington University plans to build a Coast Salish-style longhouse

Institute of American Indian Arts (where LaPointe earned her MFA)

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe website

~~~~~

Red Paint

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Counterpoint (Berkeley, CA)

2022

$25 (hardcover)

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.