A View from the Edge–Portland Author Mark Pomeroy’s New Novel: THE TIGERS OF LENTS

Portland author Mark Pomeroy’s meticulous new novel, The Tigers of Lents, begins with the “noise of speeding vehicles” cascading down from the freeway that cuts an outer Portland neighborhood in half. The rushing cars are, quite literally, bypassing an area where hopes are few and houses are “mostly on the ratty side.”

The character hearing the noise is 17-year-old Sara Garrison, the oldest of four children in a family where the mother is a retail clerk who drinks too much and the father is in prison. Sara is a soccer star at the local high school, but the season is almost over, her school is scheduled to be closed, and on this drizzly night she’s carrying bags filled with her family’s garbage, hoping to sneak them into a dumpster behind an apartment house.

With her mission accomplished, Sara returns to her family’s one-story rental with her stomach tense at the thought of the dysfunction inside. “This is where she lives,” Pomeroy writes. “It’s true.” In other words, this is her hard reality, and, unless something changes, her future will probably look much like her present—without the sports or the cheers or the education.

Starting from this bleak yet tenderly-rendered opening scene, Pomeroy slowly builds a full and compelling picture of a struggling family in crisis, where every member has difficulties to face without much hope of help from the others. But while his book is mainly about the Garrisons’ problems, fears, and modest hopes, it’s also about a place and a segment of society that have been tragically neglected.

Pomeroy has written elsewhere about what he calls the edge of poverty in America, where people might have jobs and homes but are never more than “one emergency away from real struggle.” Not only did he experience this kind of life as a boy but he taught for a while in the high school and neighborhood depicted in his novel.

Over the course of The Tigers of Lents, Pomeroy gives us the point of view of everyone in the Garrison family, except the youngest child, a boy who suffers neglect from those who should be taking care of him. There’s Rachel, the smart one, who leaves home to live with her reckless boyfriend; Elaine, the responsible one, who overeats and tries to keep the peace; Melanie, the mother, who soothes her aches from standing all day with glasses of ice-filled wine; and Keith, the father, who exits his prison cell wary of a world that has passed him by.

Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

As he carefully weaves these perspectives and lives together, Pomeroy offers moments of modest hope: a chance that Sara might play at a local college, a possible reconnection between Keith and one or more of his daughters, the potentially healing properties of the wooded mountainside the children’s grandparents live on. But he never allows those hopes to seem false. Always, at every moment, everything is grounded in the gritty reality of a neighborhood and stratum of life that tend to suck the dreams and confidence out of people.

One of Pomeroy’s most impressive accomplishments is how well he renders the fluctuations of thought and emotion in dangerously vulnerable people, especially girls. Instead of making excuses for them or wasting time blaming society, he teases out nuances in the psychological and emotional struggles of people living at society’s margins.

Shopping street in Lents neighborhood, Portland, OR. Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

In the end, The Tigers of Lents is a deeply satisfying read, but not because Pomeroy coddles his readers or gives his characters easy outs. It’s because he takes us through both hard situations and difficult emotions while being careful to show the importance of human relations and the ability, at even the direst moments, to make the right decisions and find a way forward.

Few novels explore the hard reality lived by Pomeroy’s characters and an increasing number of people of all colors and backgrounds in the United States today. Even fewer authors are able to do so with the skill, compassion, and attention to detail Pomeroy displays here.

Events:

Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading and Discussion (with Michael N. McGregor) at Third Place Books–Ravenna in Seattle, WA

Tuesday, June 18 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading & Discussion (with Mary Rechner) at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.

Links:

Mark Pomeroy website

Pomeroy’s excellent first novel, The Brightwood Stillness (Oregon State University Press)

The Crash of Worlds,” Pomeroy article on the NW Booklovers website, about his background and the inspiration for his novel

The Lents neighborhood on Living Room Realty

Airlie Press Presents a Mosaic of Pacific Northwest Perspectives in Poetry

photo by Michael N. McGregor

“Not much to spend here but time,” writes Connie Soper in her poem “January,” about a small town on the Oregon Coast where “Gray whales have migrated south” and “Winter sun unlocks a softer light/over scrubs of seagrass and low dunes, over/the long sleeve of shore.”

photo by Michael N. McGregor

“Cold whispers its name/at night in the coyote’s call,” writes Amelia Díaz Ettinger in “Día de los Muertos” before reflecting on her Mexican ancestors in her adopted Eastern Oregon:

Their forlorn silence tastes
of mold, incense, and marigolds
There are no altars this far north,
no carpets of yellow petals to lead the way.
Could they find their way?

Each in her own way, Soper and Ettinger and the other poets whose books are published by Portland-based Airlie Press evoke the sights and sounds, moods and reflections to be found and experienced in the Pacific Northwest. What gives their evocations particular resonance and authenticity is that they all live in the region. They all breathe the air and walk the ground that informs their vision.

While the themes in their poems are those of poems from anywhere–childhood and death, art and language, nature walks and nostalgia–they are embedded in the specific soil and air, fog and lichen of their Northwest home.

When Soper writes of a tree, it is a “shore pine” that is:

done in by the fury
of winter as I listened to wind that gusted
heaving waves over the Pacific.
All night that sea-power
shuddered and thumped. The tree
did not surrender

When Ettinger looks at a man she loves in the hospital, she sees how his Oregon childhood shaped him:

The operating theater saw an aging man.
A damaged heart.
But you had been a boy
running amuck in the high desert.
Climbing Jefferson
racing your Jeep,
leaving tire tracks on ancient lava.

Although many of the poems from these poets are rooted in places not far from each other, the differences in their subject matter and approaches reflect the wide variety of landscapes, perspectives, and backgrounds in the Northwest. There’s sea vs. desert but also concrete vs. abstract, external vs. internal, local-born vs. immigrant.

In “DIgging for France” Soper writes concretely of her father encouraging her as a child to try to dig a hole through the Oregon sand to the other side of the Earth. In “Drowning in a Foreign Tongue” Ettinger writes more abstractly of “the force of Anglican consonants/ that weighs the tongue like foam/inarticulate.”

What makes a press like Airlie so valuable is the meaningful mosaic it presents of the local people and land. While Soper writes of painting an old barn, finding driftwood art in an estate sale, and watching high tides, Ettinger gives us an Ethiopian child watching a lunar eclipse, a Cambodian manicurist, and a cowgirl lamenting that no one wears fedoras anymore.

The more diverse the Northwest grows, the more we need the variety of perspectives publishers like Airlie provide.

All poems in this post are from A Story Interrupted by Connie Soper and Learning to Love a Western Sky by Amelia Díaz Ettinger. In both collections, poems about places beyond the Northwest help to sharpen the vision they present of the local region. Both are published by Airlie Press.

Airlie Press is a nonprofit publisher run by writers and dedicated to promoting exceptional poets and poetry from the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 2007, it has a rotating staff of six poets who serve three-year terms, during which they handle all editorial and production tasks.

“Our process,” says their website, “involves the submission of a full-length manuscript of poetry during an annual open submission period and an interview for our finalists with current press members. Of the submissions we receive, we evaluate manuscripts thoroughly and select the promising work by authors willing to collaborate with our consensus-based group.” The poets selected become the new staff and the press publishes the manuscripts they submitted.

Attention, Northwest poets: Airlie Press’s reading period is happening this month! You have until July 31 to submit your manuscript! Here’s the submission page with details.

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Links:

For more about Arlie Press and its books, including instructions for submitting to them, buying individual titles, or supporting their work, click here to visit their website.

For more about Connie Soper and A Story interrupted, click here.

And for more about Amelia Díaz Ettinger and Learning to Love a Western Sky, click here.

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

Book Review: We Had Our Reasons: Poems by Ricardo Ruiz

I never know where or how I’m going to come across good writing about the Pacific Northwest. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was walking through the book fair at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle when I found myself in conversation with a young man who had just published his first book of poetry, titled We Had Our Reasons. I asked him to tell me about it and liked both his subject–the lives of migrant workers–and his demeanor, so I bought a copy.

Poet Ricardo Ruiz

It was only when the writer, Ricardo Ruiz, had signed the book that I noticed the workers he wrote about lived in Eastern Washington. He had already told me his book was really a collaborative effort. He had interviewed workers of Mexican descent and fashioned poetry in different forms and voices from what they told him. Some were legal immigrants, some were undocumented, some had been born in the United States, and one was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

It wasn’t until I was on the bus home and read the first few pages that I realized what a treasure his book is. In verse that has the accessibility of a Billy Collins or Mary Oliver but channels a very different world, Ruiz presents the struggles, hopes, and sometimes dangerous experiences of a group of people for whom the United States is both tentative home and too-often-tarnished dream.

His book is divided into sections that represent the different parts of the migrant worker experience: The Arrival, The Fields, Deportation, and Joining One Gang or Another. An introduction of sorts shares the book’s title, We Had Our Reasons, and the book ends with a final section called Collaborative Poets, in which Ruiz tells us about the lives of the people he interviewed, as well as his own, and includes fragments of his interviews with them.

Here’s a poem from the Arrival section called “Silent Crossing, Sleeping to the Other Side,” in the voice of a mother thinking about her young son:

you slept for two days
over-drugged by the coyote

I gathered all the sounds
you should have made

placing them inside the leather bag
upon my shoulder

when my steps strained
I opened the satchel and listened

                                   each night

I held your sounds
and know your future's here

And here’s one from the Deportation section titled “Can’t Trust Them”:

My dad traveled to Detroit in 1924
To answer this nation's call:
Leaving Monterrey, Mexico to work on
The railroad. His labor was needed
Until it wasn't. Forced out, fired
Because his job was given to
A white man in 1930. Repatriated

Again, the US came calling Mexican men.
To help the war fight, he returned.
He knew the job, he knew the railroad.
The war ended, yet he wasn't allowed to go home:
Locked up in Union Gap for answering
The call. Interned with 150 others
For being brown.

He walked home to Mexico,
his one true home,
Vowing never to return.
I told my dad I'm going north.
He sipped on his café con leche.
He didn't stop me;
He closed his eyes y me dio la bendición,

With the warning,
Don't ever trust America.

Other poems talk about being taped into a sleeping bag and stored for transport “like a gray balloon…where the trucker kept the chains,” or a mother serving “foil burritos still warm in the dented green Thermos” out in the fields “on our own Bring-Your-Kids-to-Work Day.” One poem ends with these simple words:

In court, a judge filled in the form:

NAME:       PATTY (LAST NAME HERE)

STATUS:   Immediate Deportation

AGE:           9

What Ruiz has given us is a portrait of an entire community that is generally overlooked and, if noticed, depersonalized or demonized. Yet here, in evocative writing, are the yearnings, the family connections, and the terribly hard work–in apple orchards, blueberry fields, potato factories–of people who dream and make mistakes, who love and live in fear of those who have power over them, merely because of their skin color.

We Had Our Reasons is published by the little-known Pulley Press, an imprint of Clyde Hill Publishing in Seattle and Washington, D. C. Buy this book (at only $18) and let it open your eyes and your heart to the hard but meaningful lives of the people in it. In doing so, you’ll expand your vision of what America is and at the same time help a promising young poet.

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Ricardo Ruiz is a multi-dimensional writer of poetry and prose. The son of potato factory workers, Ricardo hails from Othello, Washington. His work draws from his experience as a first-generation Mexican-American, and from his military service. Ricardo holds an Associate Degree in Business and Accounting from Big Bend Community College, where he was recognized as Student of the Year in both Business and Economics, and English Composition. He also holds a Bachelor of Art in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. While in the military, Ricardo earned the rank of Staff Sergeant while serving on four deployments, two to Afghanistan. He is passionate about elevating marginalized voices from rural communities and takes pride in being a conduit for cultural connection.

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

The Northwest’s 1st Black Theater Company–and the Fascinating Story of the Woman Who Started it

Recently, I came across a fascinating but little-known book that should be read by anyone interested in race relations, theater, or Red Scare accusations in the Pacific Northwest. Titled Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism, it tells the story of Florence B. James and her husband Burton James, who were pioneers and innovators in Seattle theater, including assembling the first all-Black company in the NW.

Although Florence James completed the book (with help from Canadian actress Jean Freeman) before her death in 1988, it wasn’t published until 25 years later. And when it was, it received little notice in the Northwest or in the U. S. in general, probably because its author was long dead and its publisher was the University of Regina Press in Canada, the country James fled to after being persecuted for the theater she dared to put on an American stage.

Florence and Burton started out in New York City but moved to Seattle in 1923 to take teaching jobs at Cornish College, the celebrated arts school that was still in its first decade then. Not content to be teachers only, they wanted to stage the kinds of cutting-edge and socially relevant plays they were most interested in. But when they tried to mount a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the Cornish board of directors refused to sanction “a supposedly ‘immoral’ play.”

Local theater leaders came to their defense but the board wouldn’t budge, so the Jameses resigned and started a company of their own, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. When one of their defenders, Glenn Hughes, took over the University of Washington drama department, he hired them to teach there, and soon they were drawing increasingly larger audiences to an aging brick building near campus they’d converted into a theater.

Every part of the Jameses’ story is fascinating, including the accusations brought against them in 1948 of being communists, when they were forced to appear before Washington State’s newly formed Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities (a forerunner of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s circus at the federal level). But the part I find most fascinating is their establishment of Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company in 1935.

As Florence tells the story, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse was flying high when, in 1932, in its fifth season, patrons who had purchased season tickets in earlier years sent notes saying they couldn’t afford them anymore. With the Depression hitting the Northwest hard, it looked as if their once-thriving venture would have to fold.

“We were out of oil and the electricity had been cut off for nonpayment of bills,” Florence writes. They burned odd bits of wood for heat, made a deal with power company, and “went on rehearsing, paying something here and something there” when they could. Through “a series of timely miracles,” as one of their players wrote in the company log, they were able to hold out until, in early 1935, they learned that one of the Roosevelt administration’s newly created agencies, the Works Progress Administration, had a program called the Federal Theatre Project, intended to employ out-of-work artists.

“When we discovered that this was not to be a ‘pork barrel’ for Broadway and Hollywood,” Florence writes, “we prepared a brief for what we decided to call a Negro Repertory Company.” When their project was accepted, their first production was of a play called Noah, translated from French.

A scene from the NRC’s 1936 production of Stevedore by Paul Peters and Sklar, image from the University of Washington’s “Negro Repertory Theatre” webpage

“We used Black music and introduced Black dancing to express the jubilation of Noah and his family when the flood recedes,” Florence writes. “Reviewers expressed amazement at the talent of people ‘taken from the scrap-heap of unemployment.'” She goes on to quote a reviewer from the Seattle Star who wrote: “This all-Negro cast put on a performance so rich, so full of promise, it was tragic in its implications. Tragic because these people who have so much to contribute have so long been wasted.”

For too brief a time, Black theater flourished on a Seattle stage in the depths of hard times, with all-Black shows playing to full houses night after night. The cast members were all amateurs, drawn mostly from Seattle’s First African Methodist Church, their talent, as the Star reviewer wrote, too long wasted.

When the group discovered that there were few good plays for Black actors, they began writing their own, but it was their production of a 2,000-year-old play, Lysistrata, that brought them the most attention. Called “indecent and bawdy,” their version of Aristophanes’ comedy was closed down “in the interest of the Federal Theatre Project.” The Negro Repertory Company continued to exist until Federal Theatre Project funding ended in 1939, but by then the Jameses had moved on.

Advertising poster for the NRC’s 1937 production, image from Historylink.org

Once the members of the Negro Repertory Company had gained production skills, Florence tells us, they began to help with White productions. “They came over willingly, joyfully, and everybody worked together. Whites taking orders from Black stage managers and technicians. Blacks working amicably with Whites–no Black power, no White power, no tensions, no frictions anywhere, just people joined in the effort of doing a job and doing it well.

“The experience of discovering talents among people who had been doing dull, mundane jobs was a constant source of joy to us. To see the colossal waste of such human resources, the most valuable assets to any country, and to realize what could have been accomplished and what this accomplishment could have meant was staggering.”

Decades passed before Seattle audiences saw a revival of Black theater. But just this year, the city’s ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) premiered a play by Seattle playwright Reginald André Jackson that explores the neglected history of Black theater. Titled History of Theatre: About, By, For, and Near, the show’s protagonist, a playwright seeking to write a new play about the history of Black theater, goes back in time and asks the members of the Negro Repertory Company for help.

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(Click here to read Sarah Guthu’s excellent summary of the Negro Repertory Company’s history on the University of Washington’s “The Great Depression in Washington State” website. It includes illustrated histories of the group’s Lysistrata and two other productions. And click here to read Guthu’s equally fine writing about the Jameses and their Seattle Repertory Playhouse, from which some of the facts in this post are drawn.)

Other links:

Negro Repertory Theatre by Paula Becker, an in-depth History Link look at the NRC, its productions, and its national associations

Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism by Florence B. James–read an excerpt and/or order directly from the University of Regina Press ($27.95 CDN, paperback, 360 pages)

Publisher’s Weekly review of Fists Upon a Star

America’s Midnight in the Pacific Northwest

Adam Hochschild is not known for writing light books, nor is he known for writing about the Pacific Northwest. His best-known book is probably King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), an unrelenting exploration of the brutality, exploitation and outright slavery Belgian overlords used to extract rubber from what was then called the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

That’s about as far from Washington, Oregon and Idaho as you can get.

But Hochschild’s new book, American Midnight, is set in the United States, in the years 1917-1921, when America’s entry into World War I set off some of the most brutal and repressive government and vigilante actions in this country’s history. And it contains numerous examples of courage and hope, many from the Northwest.

President Woodrow Wilson, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Subtitling his book “The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” Hochschild explores the ways Woodrow Wilson’s administration and the country’s reactionary elements used the war to go after anyone who didn’t support their jingoist enterprise or the corporate entities and plutocrats who made money off it.

The resulting terror–aimed at Socialists, labor leaders, peace advocates, conscientious objectors, and, most brutally, African Americans–brought democracy to its knees. But a number of brave advocates for the common people resisted the violent coercion, often at the cost of their livelihoods, their health and even their lives.

Any Northwesterner who believes in progressive politics–including the advancement of worker rights, a woman’s right to control of her own body, fair taxation, alleviation of poverty, and even the basic right of freedom from arbitrary search and seizure–will find plenty in Hochschild’s book to feel proud of.

Marie Equi, MD, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There’s Marie Equi, for example, a Portland physician and suffragist, who was in a same-sex relationship at a time when that was far more dangerous than it is today. A brash woman with a fiery temper, Equi “ignored the law that outlawed distributing birth control devices and information, and defied both the government and the American Medical Association by performing abortions,” treating poor women for free.

Once, to avoid arrest for speaking out against the war, Equi “borrowed the crampons of a telephone company lineman, and used them to climb high up a pole. From there, she unfurled a banner reading DOWN WITH THE IMPERIALIST WAR.”

There are also the leaders of the Seattle General Strike, which, in 1919 shut down an entire city for the first time in American history, but did so in an orderly way that avoided bloodshed and undue hardship for most citizens.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And there’s the International Workers of the World labor union, which was particularly strong in the Northwest. The Wobblies, as they were called, were singled out again and again for the harshest treatment. The union suffered destruction of its property, arrest of its members, and sometimes death at the hands of those who thought it a haven for foreign-controlled socialism (including members of the American Legion).

At a time when almost 15% of Americans were foreign-born, much of harshest treatment was meted out to immigrants, who had flooded into the Northwest in those days to work in the timber, mining, and fishing industries.

To be fair, the Northwest had its share of villains too. One of the worst, in Hochschild’s estimation, was a Congressman from the coastal timber country in Washington State named Albert Johnson, who sat on the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization and was vicious in his denunciation and harassment of immigrants.

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson in 1919, the year of the Seattle General Strike, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another was Ole Hanson, Seattle’s mayor at the time of the General Strike, who blamed not only the strike but everything he thought wrong with America on Socialist and Communists. Hanson went on lucrative speaking tours around the country, spewing his hatred to all who would listen, and even ran for President with anti-immigrant and anti-socialism as his platform.

According to Hochschild, vociferous denunciation of the Seattle strikers as advocates for the “anarchy of Russia” and enemies of law and order “launched Hanson as perhaps the first member of an occupation that would prove lucrative for other twentieth-century Americans: professional anti-Communist.”

American Midnight is primarily about a country in a life-or-death crisis, its democracy threatened by warmongering, government oppression, hunger for profits, vigilante “justice,” white supremacy, and a misguided defense of some supposed American Way of Life.

Sprinkled throughout it, however, you’ll find ample evidence of a previously neglected part of the country coming into its own and lending its voice, for better or worse, to the national conversation: the Pacific Northwest.

Other links:

Video: Oregon Public Broadcasting “Oregon Experience” profile of Marie Equi (3:40)

Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions by Michael Helquist, OSU Press

Video: “The Wobblies” (1:43)

International Workers of the World (Wobblies)–IWW History Project, University of Washington

Seattle General Strike Project, with video introduction (3:47), University of Washington

Woodrow Wilson and Race (& Immigration), President Wilson House

U. S. Participation in the Great War (World War I),” Library of Congress

Washington State Congressman Albert Johnson

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson, Historylink.org

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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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

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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.

Pine Pollen and Canopy Tears: Keen Observations of a Northwest Forest by an Iowa Essayist

Sometimes the sharpest observations of a place come from individuals who don’t reside there—people who visit not as tourists but as temporary observers, seeking understanding rather than snapshots.

Think of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who toured America for nine months in 1831 and produced Democracy in America, a two-volume collection of his observations that is still one of the best depictions of the young country in the early 19th century.

Essayist Tom Montgomery Fate’s birthplace and touchstone for interactions with a new world isn’t France but rather Iowa, a flat land full of cornfields where the highest point has an elevation of only 1,670 feet. Yet when Fate was invited to spend two weeks at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest near Oregon’s Cascade Range in 2017—“to write and walk, and meet a few scientists—hydrologists, botanists, biologists”—he brought with him the same essential tools de Tocqueville traveled with: a keen eye, a discerning mind, and a facility with words.

Image from the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest website

In the essay Fate wrote about the experience, “Travel that Takes You Home” (which is included in his new collection of essays about places he has visited around the world, The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries, Ice Cube Press, 2022), he delineates in precise language and telling detail not only the important research Andrews scientists are doing on things like the evergreen canopy’s protection of ground-level plants from the extremes of climate change, but also the ways in which exposure to a Northwest forest might affect our understanding of what it means to be human.

Here, for example, is Fate’s description of pausing by a creek on a rainy day:

Now I’m sitting on a flat rock in the hard rain listening to the creek. This is my job: to sit in the rain and listen. Were it a deeper stream without rocks or deadfalls or much current, and full of sediment, it would be quiet and still (and more Midwestern). Lookout Creek is crazy fast from three days of rain, and full of rocks and boulders and deadfalls, and so it has a lot to say. Over time, the gurgling water will tumble and dissolve rock, and rot logs and leaves and carry them downstream, along with trout and pine pollen and needles and cones, and bits of moss and lichen. Over time it will reshape its bed and banks and habitat, physically describing its character and history in this forest. Over time it will reflect and respond to climate change and other challenges posed by human beings. Over time, as with all streams and rivers, it will measure and reveal both our culpability and response ability as a species. Over time it will measure who we are.

Over time. That’s two words. Not “overtime.” Not hours or numbers, but a river of light and darkness, of heat and cold. Over time, things change. Some change is dramatic—what ecologists call “a disturbance”—like the rotting 400-year-old Douglas-fir that fell across the creek 30 years ago during a flood. The crashing tree ripped a wide gash in the canopy, prompting slower, less dramatic change below: a thick stand of Alder trees sprung up on the gravel bar amid the flood of new light. When the Doug-fir fell, its bole and branches obstructed and partly dammed the creek, forming a deep pool—where, over time, native trout came to live, and to wait and watch for midges and flies to light on the water.

Waiting and watching. Over time. To stand by a river and go. That rainy day I lingered by the water all afternoon, scrambling around on the slippery rocks like the child I once was—completely lost in the moment—and hoping to see something: a bird, or a snake, or a beetle, or a frog, or anyone who might re-member me, and remind me how I belong.

What might be a common environment to a native Northwesterner, Fate sees as new and full of unique character. He observes not only the pine but the pine pollen, not only the fallen log but the tear it rips in the canopy.

Fate’s new collection is full of such trenchant observations of places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and, yes, Iowa. It’s also full of deeper contemplations of our connections not only to place but also to family, faith, nature, and vulnerable populations.

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To read an earlier, online version of Fate’s Northwest essay, visit the About Place Journal website.

To attend a virtual event at which Fate will read from and discuss his new book, sign up here. You can read more about the event here. It takes place at 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, July 20, and registration is required.

To purchase Fate’s book, simply click here or ask your local bookstore to order The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries by Tom Montgomery Fate.

For more on Fate and his other books and essays, go to his website, TomFate.com.

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Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five other books of creative nonfiction, including Cabin Fever, a nature memoir (Beacon Press), and Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir (Chalice Press). A regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, his essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Orion, The Iowa Review, Christian Century, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and many others.  Dozens of his essays have also aired on NPR, PRI and Chicago Public Radio.

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The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries

Tom Montgomery Fate

Ice Cube Press

2022

$19.99