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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 HJAndrews 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.
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.
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 Discoveriesby Tom Montgomery Fate.
For more on Fate and his other books and essays, go to his website, TomFate.com.
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.
The awful rise in attacks on Asian Americans in recent months has reminded me how horribly Chinese immigrants were treated in the Pacific Northwest in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as how difficult it has been through the years for local Asian Americans to be heard on issues affecting them.
Things have improved in recent decades but Americans and Canadians of Asian descent—who make up 9% of the population in Washington, 5% in Oregon, and an impressive 25% in British Columbia—are still underrepresented in the governments and news outlets in their regions.
Fortunately, in addition to more narrowly targeted newspapers, the Northwest now has three daily publications dedicated specifically to news and issues affecting Asian American residents: Asian Journal in Vancouver (BC), Northwest Asian Weekly in Seattle, and the The Asian Reporter in Portland.
A Little History
Asians and Asian Americans have maintained a continual presence in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s, when the first Chinese miners migrated north to Oregon and Washington from California. These miners were soon followed by others who worked in salmon canneries and logging camps as laborers or cooks, or ran small businesses.
When the railroads began to snake their way into the Northwest, Chinese workers helped to blast pathways and lay rails, earning a reputation for diligence, skill, and speed—as well as the enmity of white workers, who hated them for their willingness to do more for less and their skin color.
As the 19th century progressed, other Asian groups followed, arriving from Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. Virtually all of these early Asian residents were young men willing to work hard for whatever they could earn.
By 1870, there were over 4,000 Asian immigrants in Idaho—a third of the population—as well as over 3,000 in Oregon, most of them Chinese. While there were fewer than 400 in Washington at that time, by 1880 that number had grown to over 3,000 too .
Despite being subject to targeted restrictions (such as special taxes and laws against marrying whites or owning property) and, in the mid-1880s, attacks by mobs, many of these residents remained in the area or returned when conditions improved. In other words, they persisted.
Even 1882’s vile Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration into the U. S. for 10 years, didn’t shake the determination of those already in the country to stay and make their living wherever and however they could.
Northwest residents of Japanese extraction, of course, were subject to another cruel law in 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced them to leave their homes, their farms, and their businesses to move to government-run internment camps. When World War II ended, many who went back to where they’d lived before the war had to start from scratch among neighbors who had greedily acquired the property they’d been forced to abandon.
While early Asian settlers in the Northwest sought both identity and protection in their own nation-of-origin-focused groups, a greater Asian American identification began to grow in the later part of the 20th century. In Seattle, for example, the former Chinatown was renamed the International District (over the objections of some Chinese leaders) to recognize the mingling of many Asian American groups in the area.
Although there have always been newspapers for Asian Americans from different groups (often published in languages other than English), it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that English-language papers focused on Asian Americans from all backgrounds began to appear in Northwest cities.
Today, as the percentage of people in the Northwest who identify as Asian American continues to grow, the news sites dedicated to keeping them informed and representing their interests are good sources for all Northwesterners wanting to expand their understanding of their neighbors and their vision of the world.
Here are some useful links related to news and other writing by and about Asian Americans in the Northwest:
When I was in the MFA program at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, a poetry professor assigned a book called The Business of Fancydancing (Hanging Loose Press, 1992) by a writer from my home state I’d never heard of: Sherman Alexie. When I turned the book over, the black-and-white on the back showed an enviably-young man in a checkered shirt beside a listing of journals he’d published in. Below was a quote from a front-page review in the New York Times that called the book “wide-ranging, dexterous and consistently capable of raising your neck hair.”
I don’t know that the book raised the hair anywhere on my body, but it did raise my consciousness and my sense of what poetry and short stories and writing of any kind can do and be. A Spokane/Coeur D’Alene Indian who seemed to love basketball as much as I did, Alexie not only knew how to explode expectations but how to challenge those who felt they had a right to impose them, and how to wrestle the language his people were forced to speak into forms and lines and juxtapositions that made it seem entirely new.
Here, for example, is a poem from that book called “Evolution”:
Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation
right across the border from the liquor store
and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
and the Indians come running in with jewelry
television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit
it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill
takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it
all catalogued and filed in a storage room. The Indians
pawn their hands, saving their thumbs for last, they pawn
their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin
and when the last Indian has pawned everything
but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks
closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old
calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES
charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.
Sherman Alexie was not the first Native American writer to break through the white wall, but over the next 25 years he was certainly one of the most successful. And he did more to shine a light on the real lives of Indians in the Pacific Northwest than anyone else.
One year after Fancydancing, which contains a mix of poems and short stories, Alexie published his first all-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). I didn’t need to see more than the title to know I’d love it and be challenged by it and feel uncomfortable reading it, all at once.
Until he stopped doing tours a few years ago, his readings were must-see events, with Alexie not only giving distinctive voices to individual characters but acting out his stories to both hilarious and poignant effect.
Unfortunately, not long after his memoir came out, several women stepped forth to say he had sexually harassed them. Since that time, he has remained quiet and a number of institutions have renamed or recalled awards associated with him or ended promotion of his books.
The question now is how we recognize or appreciate or contextualize one of the most important Native American voices in Pacific Northwest history. If we read his books, are we condoning his behavior? If we don’t read his books, are we denying ourselves and those who come after us an important perspective on our region, culture, and collective history? Is there a statute of limitations?
I don’t have any answers. All I can say is that back near the end of the 20th century a voice spoke to me in a language and form I’d never heard or seen before, and I will always be grateful for how it opened me up. How it challenged me. And how it changed me for the better.
One of my goals for this site is to introduce readers to writing set in the Northwest that hasn’t reached a large audience, especially works by writers other than white men. To that end, I’m working on future reviews of exciting new literature as well as posts by myself and others about past writings that should be better known. But I don’t want to ignore iconic Northwest books.
So, to get a lot of great books onto the site quickly, here’s a link to a post the folks at Powell’s Books put together back in 2014 titled, “40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest.” The list is a bit male-, white-, and Oregon-centric, but, to be fair, it was produced eight years ago and the intention seems to have been to alert people to some of the biggies. Maybe the Powell’s staff will produce a follow-up with more-current works soon!
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.”
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.”
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.
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
Earlier this week, the winners of the 2022 Oregon Book Awards were announced. While the awards honor books by Oregon writers rather than books specifically about Oregon, a fair number of the award finalists are usually set in the state or explore some aspect of it.
Soon, I’ll be posting a review of one of this year’s finalist, rough house by Tina Ontiveros (this site’s first book review), but today I’m thinking of a wonderful and unique award winner I picked up at the ceremony a few years ago.
While he quotes from some academic sources–such as Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown’s classic look at the Columbia Chinook,The Chinook Indians: Traders of Lower Columbia(University of Oklahoma Press, 1976)–Aquilar’s main sources of information are other descendants of the Columbia tribes. And his intention isn’t to add to the historical record so much as give his people a sense of their own traditions, customs, and, yes, history.
“In a recent visit to Wolford Canyon, where I was brought up,” he writes, “there was only silence. The memories remain, but the echoes of the canyon are calm. No children play in the springwater pools. No sweathouse fires heat the rocks. No deer hides are soaking. No buckskin tanning. No gardens. No wheat or hay growing. The fields are now teeming with juniper trees where the golden heads of wheat once swayed to the whispers of the wind.”
To replace that silence, Aguilar excavates the memories of people he knows and others whose reminiscences have been recorded. Out of these and his own experiences, he weaves a kind of handbook for Chinook descendants like himself, especially the younger generations of the 21st century, who have no contact with anyone who lived by the old ways.
In the midst of chapters that explore the Chinooks’ traditional foods (both plants and animals), religions and beliefs, myths and legends, and warfare, Aguilar includes set pieces on practices such as the sweathouse, meat drying, the use of traditional nets, and something known as “butt slapping,” a way for native fishermen on platforms over the Columbia River to indicate which fish they’ve caught they want to keep for themselves.
The chapter on salmon fishing on the Columbia is worth the book’s cost alone. Not only does Aguilar evoke the heyday of Celilo Falls, he also talks about salmon runs, salmon festivals, fishing techniques, and customs that regulated how and where the salmon were fished for.
In other sections, he writes about the other species the Chinook relied on–Pacific lamprey, crayfish, sturgeon, smelt–and gives an exhaustive list of the plants they ate or used in other ways, as well as how they prepared them.
Beginning with his own experiences in forced boarding schools and government programs ,like one in the 1950s that attempted to get younger Indians to move off the reservation into cities, Aguilar takes us through the hardships his people have had to endure while also celebrating the endurance of a vibrant culture in danger of being completely lost.
One of the most important aspects of Aguilar’s project is his naming of individual tribal members, past and present–names that have been left out of the history books. He traces the lineage of individual names, tells us how names have been given, and looks at the meanings of those names. He is careful to name important local figures who are unknown to the general public and tell their stories too.
“The River People are the Northwest Klickitat and the Eastern-speaking Chinookan Kiksht,” Aguilar writes. “They are the Wascos, the Cascades, the Wishxams, the Clackamas, the Multnomahs, the Hood Rivers, the Skamanias, the Skilloots, and others who lived in villages on both sides of the Wilmaɬ, the Columbia River.”
By naming and writing for the descendants of these people–his people–Aquilar is trying to make sure they and their ways are not forgotten.
When the River Ran Wild!
Indian Traditions on the Mid-Columbia and the Warm Springs Reservation
by George W. Aguilar, Sr.
Published by Oregon Historical Press, in association with the University of Washington Press