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

Northwest “Cowboys and Indians” Partnering to Protect the Environment

I spent some time away last week catching up on reading I’d missed, including Naomi Klein’s provocative exploration of the link between globalization and climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). You can read about the arguments and evidence Klein presents in this important book here. What I want to focus on is what she says about those who are fighting for clean air and water in the Pacific Northwest.

Klein devotes a long section to Northwest activists in a chapter she calls “Blockadia” (her word for the spontaneous protests against fossil fuel extraction and transportation happening around the world). After praising a coalition of Northwest Indigenous and non-Native groups that prevented huge rigs from reaching the landscape-desecrating Alberta tar sands (a “Cowboys and Indians alliance,” one activist called it), she adds:

“Indeed, the oil and coal industries are no doubt cursing the day that they ever encountered the Pacific Northwest–Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. There the sector has had to confront a powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty. It is also, significantly, a region where the local environmental movement never fully succumbed to the temptations of the corporate partnership model, and where there is a long and radical history of land-based direct action to stop clear-cut logging and dirty mining.” (p. 319)

It’s good to see a writer recognizing not only the current work being done in the Northwest in regards to environmental and justice issues but also the past. Klein is careful to note the importance of Indigenous people in many of these battles. The Nez Perce took the lead in the fight to prevent the tar sands rigs from using a vital secondary roadway in Idaho and Montana. And the Lummi people led the effort to block a coal-exporting terminal near Bellingham, Washington, which, in 2017, ended the multi-year attempts of coal extractors to build a facility in the Northwest to export coal to Asia.

Much of the Northwest’s early history is a history of devastating extraction: the logging of old growth timber, the over-fishing and canning for export of tons and tons of salmon, the removal from the ground of everything from coal to copper to gold. But Northwest history is also full of stories of brave opposition to these activities: tree-sitters and salmon restoration advocates and protestors who have blocked the digging of new mines.

As Klein says about a coalition that worked to stop the building of a pipeline across British Columbia, Northwesterners are well aware of how fortunate we are to still have access to pristine natural environments. We’re also aware that we have lost too many of those environments already–and that those who put personal enrichment above preservation of the planet are always seeking to profit from (and pollute) those that are left.

For further reading:

To Think Like a Mountain: Environmental Challenges in the American West by Niels S. Nokkentved (Washington State University Press, 2019)

The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands, edited by Erika Allen Wolters and Brent S. Steel (Oregon State University Press, 2020) The digital version of this book is free through OSU’s Open Educational Resources.

Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway by Robert M. Wilson (University of Washington Press, 2012)

Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia by Jonathan Peyton (University of British Columbia Press, 2017)

Spotlight on NW Publishers: Featuring Voices from Home

The Pacific Northwest has a large number of quality publishers—some larger, some smaller, some known across the country, some known only to a few thankful readers. One thing almost all of them have in common is publishing Northwest writers who write about their home region in memoirs, essays, histories, fiction or poetry.

Below are thirteen you should know about, along with quotes from their websites about what they offer and a representative sampling of their books about the Northwest.

Just click on any title for a full description of the book.

University of Washington Press

“The University of Washington Press is the oldest and largest publisher of scholarly and general interest books in the Pacific Northwest. We publish compelling and transformative work with regional, national, and global impact.”

Walking the High Desert: Encounters with Rural America on the Oregon Desert Trail by Ellen Waterston (“Blending travel writing with memoir and history, Waterston [a poet] profiles a wide range of people who call the high desert home….”)

Uncle Rico’s Encore: Mosty True Stories of Filipino Seattle by Peter Bacho (forthcoming: January 2022–“Sharing a life inextricably connected to his community and the generation that came before him, this memoir is a tribute to Filipino Seattle.”)

The River that Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish by BJ Cummings (“This important book should be read by all wetlands conservationists.” – Choice)

(And one more: The Port of Missing Men by Aaron Goings)

Oregon State University Press

“For sixty years, Oregon State University Press has been publishing exceptional books about the Pacific Northwest—its people and landscapes, its flora and fauna, its history and cultural heritage.”

Mink River by Brian Doyle (“It’s the tale of a town, written in a distinct and lyrical voice, and readers will close the book more than a little sad to leave the village of Neawanaka, on the wet coast of Oregon, beneath the hills that used to boast the biggest trees in the history of the world.”–a much-beloved debut novel by one of the NW’s most distinctive voices.)

The Brightwood Stillness by Mark Pomeroy (“With its vivid look at friendship and the challenges of cross-cultural communication, its poignant take on the legacy of Vietnam, and its Pacific Northwest setting, The Brightwood Stillness will remind readers of the best elements of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars…”)

Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hell’s Canyon by R. Gregory Nokes (A former AP & Oregonian reporter digs for the truth behind the 1887 massacre of 30 Chinese gold miners on the Oregon side of Hell’s Canyon. Along the way, he “examines the once-substantial presence of Chinese laborers in the interior Pacific Northwest…“)

(And one more: Rough House: A Memoir by Tina Ontiveros)

Washington State University Press

“Our passion is telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest—lesser-known yet fascinating accounts of people, places, and events that matter in the region’s history or culture and are part of the broad picture of Western expansion.”

Teaching Native Pride: Upward Bound and the Legacy of Isabel Bond by Tony Tekaroniake Evans (“Native and non-Native voices tell the story of the federally sponsored Upward Bound program at the University of Idaho, intertwining personal anecdotes and memories with accounts of the program’s inception and goals, as well as regional Native American history and Isabel Bond’s Idaho family history.”)

Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition by Rodney Frey (2018 Handcart Award, Mountain West Center for Regional Studies. “Carry Forth the Stories breaks a trail toward a new/old way of looking at the world that promises cultural, personal and ecological healing.”—Billings Gazette)

Writing the Northwest: A Reporter Looks Back by Hill Williams (“Award-winning, amiable journalist Hill Williams…transforms his stories into inviting, candid narratives about Hanford, Celilo Falls, whale-hunters, salmon researchers, growing up on the dry side of Washington, and more.”)

Forest Avenue Press

“Literary fiction on a joy ride.”

Queen of Spades by Michael Shou-Yung Shum (“With a breathtaking climax that rivals the best Hong Kong gambling movies, Michael Shou-Yung Shum’s debut novel delivers the thrilling highs and lows that come when we cede control of our futures to the roll of the dice and the turn of a card.”)

A Simplified Map of the Real World by Steven Allred (Named a #1 book of 2013 in the Powell’s Staff Top 5s and a 2014 Multnomah County Library PageTurners Book Club Pick. “Fifteen linked stories chart a true course through the lives of families, farmers, loggers, former classmates, and the occasional stripper.”)

This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis (“When Jackie Shannon Hollis marries Bill, a man who does not want children, she joyfully commits to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she returns to the family ranch in rural Oregon and holds her newborn niece. Jackie falls deep into baby love and longing and begins to question her decision.“)

(And one more: Parts Per Million by Julia Stoops)

Sasquatch Books

“Based in Seattle for over 30 years, Sasquatch Books, together with our children’s imprint, Little Bigfoot, publishes books by the most gifted writers, artists, chefs, naturalists, and thought leaders in the Pacific Northwest and on the West Coast…

Chief Seattle and the Town that Took His Name by David M. Buerge (“This is the first thorough historical account of Chief Seattle and his times–the story of a half-century of tremendous flux, turmoil, and violence, during which a native American war leader became an advocate for peace and strove to create a successful hybrid racial community.”)

Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and Its Shifting Legacy in the American West by Cassandra Tate (“Historian and journalist Cassandra Tate takes a fresh look at the personalities, dynamics, disputes, social pressures, and shifting legacy of the Whitman Massacre—a pivotal event in the history of the American West—including the often-missing Indian point of view.“)

The Dreamer and the Doctor: A Forest Lover and a Physician on the Edge of the Frontier by Jack Nesbit (“In the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Northwest, the lives and passions of an American physician and her Swedish naturalist husband helped shape a territory on the cusp of change.”)

Ooligan Press

“Ooligan Press is a student-run trade press rooted in the Pacific Northwest dedicated to cultivating the next generation of publishing professionals. We prioritize literary equity and inclusion. Ooligan strives to publish culturally relevant titles from our local, marginalized voices in order to make literature accessible and redefine who has a place within its pages.”

Faultland by Suzy Vitello (As the Sparrow family’s shaky foundations collide, an earthquake levels their city [Portland] in this debut novel.)

Oregon Stories, edited by Ooligan Press (“This collection of 150 personal narratives from everyday Oregonians explores the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people who live in this unique state.”)

Copper Canyon Press

Copper Canyon Press publishes new collections of poetry by both revered and emerging American poets, translations of classical and contemporary work from many of the world’s cultures, re-issues of out-of-print poetry classics, anthologies, and prose books about poetry.”

After the Point of No Return by David Wagoner (“In After the Point of No Return, Wagoner finds wonder in the world of the senses as he reveals the melodies of an ancient rainforest, remembers boyhood rituals, and captures the swift movement of a fox at the edge of vision.”)

The Novice Insomniac by Emily Warn (“Whether invoking the persona of Esther to examine Jewish culture, musing upon the threatened landscape of her native Northwest, or witnessing the frustration of the insomniac’s darkened domain, [Warn’s] poems offer solace to what is most vulnerable in this world.”)

Propeller Books

Our independent press publishes high-quality literary projects and distributes titles from like-minded publishers.

Gielgud by Dan DeWeese (“In scenes of humor, anxiety, tenderness, and desire, Gielgud chronicles men and women who, in a world of streaming video and nonstop commentary, quietly struggle through personal crises almost entirely unobserved.”)

A Simple Machine, Like the Lever by Evan P. Schneider (“Nick’s struggle to position his aesthetic within the world is the story of a perfectionist who is far from perfect, who is considerate but clumsy, and may be invisible. Like Nick, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever is short, toned, observant, generous, purposeful, and brimming with bicycle wisdom.“)

Calyx Press

CALYX exists to nurture women’s creativity by publishing fine literature and art by women.”

Harvest by Barbara Baldwin (“Embracing both the personal and the universal—from her love of nature viewed from her home in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to the realities of love, life, and loss—this intensely powerful collection stands as a tribute to a wife and environmentalist, mother and activist, and, above all, a writer.”)

Indian Singing by Gail Tremblay (“Indian Singing is not a quiet book; the musical poetry of Gail Tremblay demands to be read, sung, out loud. Her poetry is a visionary quest, a work of hope presenting enduring lessons to accommodate change in our troubled times.“)

Black Heron Press

“Black Heron Press is a literary press located in Seattle, Washington.”

North Fork by Wayne M. Johnston (“The three main characters tell their stories separately as first-person written responses to an English class assignment to keep a personal journal. Each struggles to face life with integrity while entangled in a web of difficult situations. To triumph, each must confront the challenge of forgiveness.”)

The Remains of River Names by Matt Briggs (“The novel is told in twelve linked stories, each of which is a chapter told in turn by the members of a counter-culture family in the process of destroying itself.”)

Hawthorne Books

“Hawthorne Books is an independent literary press based in Portland, Oregon, with a national scope and deep regional roots.”

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (2012 Finalist, Pen Center Creative Nonfiction Award. “This is not your mother’s memoir.”)

Little Green by Loretta Stinson (“Like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Loretta Stinson portrays the psychology of a woman who has experienced violence at the hands of someone she loves and the complexity of leaving with sensitivity and insight.”)

Timber Press

“Timber Press is devoted to sharing the wonders of the natural world by publishing books from experts in gardening, horticulture, and natural history.”

A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians by Edward Malin (“An exploration of the meaning behind the treasured masks created by artisans for ritual purposes, or simply for enjoyment. The author presents a photo gallery of outstanding examples.”)

Wolves in the Land of Salmon by David Moskowitz (“Observing [wolves] at close range, David Moskowitz explores how they live, hunt, and communicate, tracing their biology and ecology through firsthand encounters in the wildlands of the Northwest.“)

Mountaineers Books

With more than 700 titles in print, Mountaineers Books [specializes in] outdoor recreation, sustainable lifestyle, and conservation titles, published respectively under our Mountaineers Books, Skipstone, and Braided River imprints.”

The Sasquatch Seeker’s Field Manual: Using Citizen Science to Uncover North America’s Most Elusive Creature by David Gordon (“This new field guide introduces readers to the Sasquatch—also popularly known as Bigfoot—in nature, in myth, and in modern culture. Gordon explores folklore, testimonies and evidence, and modern day encounters.“)

Crags, Eddies and RipRap: The Sound Country Memoir of Wolf Bauer by Lynn Hyde and Wolf Bauer (“Bauer was a whirlwind of outdoor pursuits that inspired some of America’s greatest climbers. And as an engineer, he developed methods for preserving coastlines that have been adversely impacted by human development…He was one of those unsung Amercan heroes who moved ahead each day to make a difference and, in his hurry, ended up creating a legacy of accomplishment that many of us now lean on today.”)

~~~~~~~~~

For news about Northwest indie publishers and authors, check out the News page of Book Publishers Northwest, a regional affiliate of the Independent Book Publishers Association.

And for general news about Northwest events and issues in publishing and bookselling, go to the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association website.

(To leave a comment, click on the blog post title.)