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 

Out of the Woods: Book Review of rough house by Tina Ontiveros

At the heart of rough house—Tina Ontiveros’s difficult yet moving memoir about growing up poor in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest and, when her family breaks apart, the brown dryness of The Dalles, Oregon—stand two people and a question.

One of the two is Ontiveros’s childhood self, revealed not only through her adult memories but also the stories her parents tell about her earliest years, some true, some exaggerated or made up altogether. The true stories come from her mother, the made-up ones from her father, Loyd, the second and more ambiguous of the book’s two main characters.

Loyd is an itinerant logger from a family of loggers at a time when Northwest logging is in decline. He drags his family from place to place, lodging them in various trailers and other inadequate shelters. Although he works hard, he falls off the wagon repeatedly, insists on controlling those around him, and strikes with his fists when he feels someone has crossed him, including the mother of his children. Loyd is the kind of person who squanders his life and drives away others, never able to stay on track for very long.

As Ontiveros writes at the end of her first chapter—a chapter in which we witness her father’s brutal way of teaching her to ride a bike—Loyd “left nothing much physical behind him on this earth. No poetry or paintings, no endowments or discoveries to share with humankind…Mostly his existence was primal flashes of intensity in different places, always a sense of adventure and danger. There was a sort of balance to his living, creativity and destruction in equal measure. Always harm. Always love.”

Image by Karen Arnold, publicdomainpictures.net

In many ways, Loyd is simply the product of the world he lives in, a world in which timber barons and corporations use and misuse a fungible and ultimately disposable cadre of rootless men to extract the riches of Northwest forests for personal gain. Like many men who make their living with their bodies, he tends to respond to the world in physical ways, particularly those that cause Ontiveros’s mother to leave him: “drinking, drugging, cheating, and hitting.”

But behind those physical responses lie deeper emotions often perverted by the way these men have grown up and lived and, as the last two words of the quote above suggest, those emotions can be expressed in positive ways, too. Which leads us to both the question at the book’s core—Why does Loyd’s daughter not only return to him again and again but choose to write a book about him?—as well as a possible answer.

“I lived in a small body then,” Ontiveros writes at the end of chapter three, “and when Loyd knelt down and talked to me, to show me the miracle of an unbroken sand dollar or a newly forming inlet, he looked like a man at prayer. What I mean to say is that he made me feel like I deserved to take up space. From his moments of careful attention, I learned to expect some small amount of worship from the world. From his violence, desperate apologies, and absences, I would discover that the same sparkling fires that fueled his creativity could burn out of control, leaving a landscape stripped of life. Loyd would hurt and fail me in a hundred ways, but first he taught me to wonder, gave me love without condition, and moments where I felt holy.”

Image by Michael N. McGregor

Ontiveros’s mother’s love for Loyd reaches a breaking point when he holds a gun to their adolescent son’s head. And Ontiveros reaches a similar point when he violates her trust in an especially vile manner. The violation and its aftermath are, in many ways, the book’s high point. After smoldering for half of the book’s 188-page length, Ontiveros’s writing suddenly catches fire as she finally faces the kind of man her father is. Out of that fire comes a deeper question: Can you continue to love a man who does a thing like that?

But something else is born in that fire too: The stronger woman Ontiveros will become, a woman who is not only able to see her father—and her mother—with clear eyes, but also to stand on her own, with her own strength; forge a life for herself out of tools her parents have inadvertently given her; and find a way to not only love but embrace the people she came from.

In the end, of course, the story doesn’t belong to Loyd, it belongs to his daughter, who has the choice to tell it in her own way. Although it is often a brutal story, it is told with love. And it is that love that allows Ontiveros to not only rise above the violence, misogyny, and suspicion often endemic to the world she came from, but also bring some acceptance to that world, helping us to understand it.

Contrary to popular belief, you can sometimes tell a lot about a book by its title. In addition to the double meaning of physical fun and difficult circumstances, it’s significant that rough house is printed in lower case. Ontiveros is shining a light on minor characters whose stories, though filled with poverty and violence, are worth telling—and worth reading—for what they reveal about the hardships many Americans face, as well as how those Americans—especially women, like Ontiveros—find a way forward despite the odds.

rough house

by Tina Ontiveros

Oregon State University Press

2020

$18.95

Buy your copy here.

Two other compelling books about Northwest women finding their way forward out of poverty, violence, and isolation (both set in Idaho):

Educated by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)–National Book Critics Circle Award finalist–“Beautiful and propulsive . . . Despite the singularity of [Westover’s] childhood, the questions her book poses are universal: How much of ourselves should we give to those we love? And how much must we betray them to grow up?”—Vogue

In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes (Doubleday, 1996)–Pulitzer Prize finalist–“In the Wilderness is the story of this poet’s journey toward adulthood, set against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as wondrous, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great Idaho forest itself.”–Amazon.com

2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History

I learned this week that I’ve been awarded the 2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History…which means, I guess, that my position as the curator of this website is a bit more legitimate now.

The Oregon Historical Society gives out two Sterling fellowships each year, one to a graduate student and one to a senior researcher. The award funds research in the OHS archives, with each recipient in residence at the archives for four weeks at some point during the award year. (I haven’t learned yet who this year’s graduate student recipient is.)

I’ll be using my archive time for research related to a new biography and preparation for writing an article or two for the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

According to the OHS website, the fellowships are funded “through an endowment, made possible by the family of Donald J. Sterling, Jr., to encourage original, scholarly, interpretive research in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

The catalog description for the Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Papers at OHS gives this brief bio:

Donald J. Sterling, Jr. (1927-2000) was the last editor of the Oregon Journal, serving from 1972 to 1992. He attended Princeton University and worked as a reporter for the Denver Post from 1948 to 1952. He joined the Oregon Journal when his father, Donald J. Sterling, retired, and in the early 1980s he helped to consolidate the newspaper with its former rival, the Oregonian. He was active in civic organizations including the City Club of Portland, the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Oregon Historical Society.”

Receiving this award and learning about Donald J. Sterling, Jr., has me thinking about the importance of newspapers in writing about the Northwest or any other place. As the saying goes, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” For historians and biographers, newspapers are a vital primary source of information. But what happens when, as with the Oregon Journal, newspapers consolidate or simply disappear? Can we trust a single paper in a major market like Portland or Seattle to give us the kind of accurate and non-biased information good history and biography rely on?

I’ll explore these questions and related ones in my next post.

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