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:


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.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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, 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

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,

Note: I am an affiliate of, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author image from inside the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links:

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

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

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

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

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe website


Red Paint

Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Counterpoint (Berkeley, CA)


$25 (hardcover)

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of, 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

The Powell’s List of 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest

Image from the Powell’s Books website

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!

Their 40 selections are:


Mink River
by Brian Doyle

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Night Dogs
by Kent Anderson

by Chelsea Cain

Trout Fishing in America
by Richard Brautigan

East of the Mountains
by David Guterson

Hard Rain Falling
by Don Carpenter

My Abandonment
by Peter Rock

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie

Last Go Round: A Real Western
by Ken Kesey

Black Hole
by Charles Burns

Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey

by Alexis M. Smith

The River Why
by David James Duncan

by Cherie Priest

Permeable Borders
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn

No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July

Ricochet River
by Robin Cody

The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin

Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?
by G. M. Ford

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey

Dies the Fire
by S. M. Stirling

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

by Yasmine Galenorn

by Gretchen McNeil

by Don Berry


This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff

Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story
by Brent Walth

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk

Hidden History of Portland, Oregon
by J. D. Chandler

Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle

Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest
by Stewart Holbrook

All God’s Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families
by Rene Denfeld

Of Walking in Rain
by Matt Love

Where and What Do We Mean When We Say “the Pacific Northwest”?

Map of the Oregon Territory, 1841, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before we talk too much about writing the Northwest, we should attempt to define where and what the Northwest is. One of the few writers who has tried to write comprehensively about the region, historian Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, who taught for many years at the University of Idaho, has written:

The fact is that Pacific Northwesterners themselves cannot agree upon their region’s bounds. In addition to the generally accepted core states of Washington and Oregon, some people would include western Montana and even northern California and British Columbia within the region. Idaho presents the greatest challenge to easy classification because some residents perceive their state as oriented toward Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Rim, while others consider it part of the intermountain West that includes Montana and Utah….Some scholars classify Oregon and Washington within the Far West or Pacific states and Idaho within the Mountain states, or the separate the lush, green Douglas fir country of Oregon and Washington west of the Cascade mountains from the high, often arid interior.

Schwantes ultimately settles on the complete states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho for the purposes of his book. “Several unifying forces operate within this 250,000-square-mile region,” he writes, “the Columbia River and its numerous tributaries, networks of transportation and communication, patterns of trade and commerce, and a special sense of place derived from history and geography. These integrative forces lessen internal divisions caused by mountain ranges, distance, state boundaries, and differing economic activities and political and religious cultures.”

These words are in the “Revised and Enlarged Edition” of Schwantes book The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History, published in 1996. In the 25 years since that edition appeared, those “integrative forces” seem to have become less integrative. Today, there’s a growing movement in some Oregon counties to secede from that state and become part of Idaho, which some residents feel is a better fit culturally, politically, and even geographically. In both Washington and Oregon, the wetter western half seems to be perennially at war over issue after issue with the dryer eastern half. Many residents in the Klamath Basin identify largely with the drainage area of the Klamath River, which crosses from Oregon into California. In some recent summers, wildfires in British Columbia laid blankets of smoke over Washington, suggesting at least an environmental link between those two entities. And in 1964, a 9.2 earthquake in Alaska (which some historians have argued should be considered part of the Pacific Northwest) set Seattle’s Space Needle swaying.

If we consider the older connections between indigenous populations, we find other patterns and alliances, such as the similar cultures along the Pacific coast above and below the current US-Canada border and the trading centers along the Columbia River that drew people from tribes near and far.

Then there’s the Cascadia Movement, dedicated to the forming of an independent nation composed of the current-day areas of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia—the core of the s-called “Cascadia bioregion.” According to Wikipedia, Cascadian secessionists “generally state that their political motivations deal mostly with political, economic, cultural, and ecological ties, as well as the beliefs that the eastern federal governments are out of touch, slow to respond, and hinder provincial and state attempts at further bioregional integration.”

We could divide ourselves up in many other ways too: loggers vs. farmers, salmon country vs. wheat land, predominately urban regions vs. those that are mainly rural, mountain land vs. flat land, places where dams are mostly for power vs. those where they’re seen as mostly for irrigation, diverse areas vs. those with more of a monoculture.

In the end, though, what makes the Pacific Northwest interesting and worth writing about is that it has all of these various geographical, environmental, historical, cultural, occupational, political, and natural elements. And historically, the divide between these micro-regions was less pronounced than it seems to be today. People think of transient populations as appearing mostly in big cities now, but migrant farmworkers have long moved through the Northwest’s farming regions, and throughout Northwest history ad hoc groups of workers, mostly men, have gravitated from logging to harvesting to work or idleness in towns and cities.

So what are the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest? For the purposes of this website, let’s say it is centered in the core states of Washington and Oregon but includes Idaho and at least half of Montana and maybe parts of lower British Columbia too. But if someone writes about two explorers sent across the country by a president to find a Northwest Passage, or a college kid from Seattle who earns money in a cannery in Alaska, or the division of water rights on a fragile river that flows from Oregon into California, or the migration of Mormons across the Idaho-Utah border, all of that is welcome here too.

I’m interested less in strict definitions than self-identifications and the kinds of re-definings that make anything, from a person to a region to a concept, fresh and new.

What Does It Mean to “Write the Northwest” Today?

Exactly 75 years ago—on Halloween weekend in 1946—a group of authors, journalists and academics gathered for three days at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for the first and only Writers’ Conference on the Northwest. The conference organizers’ stated aim was not to hold a traditional writers’ conference, in which young writers learn from more-established writers, but to discuss the essence, history and future of a region: the Pacific Northwest.

In his introductory remarks, Reed College President Peter H. Odegard said that, in many respects, “the Pacific Northwest is coming of age. In literature and art, in history and biography, in music, the record and resources of the region should be a source of pride and confidence. We need to discover our own cultural heritage and to encourage our own youth to look about in their own back yard to find inspiration and employment for their creative talents. It ought not to be necessary for them to go to New York for recognition or for their need of glory and reward. New York will come to them.”

The conference took place just after the end of World War II, which did more to focus attention on the Northwest than anything before it. Northwest contributions were viewed as vital to the Allies’ victory: Boeing planes built in Seattle, Kaiser ships assembled in Portland and Vancouver, nuclear weapons created in secret at Hanford, and aluminum and other metals forged in scattered plants—all powered by FDR’s huge new Columbia River dams.

Given what Odegard called the region’s “coming of age” and the inevitable self-examination (and self-regard) occasioned by its outsized role in the war, it must have seemed natural in 1946 to consider how those writing about the region would depict it. After all, scant years before the war, the Northwest had been a backwater to most Americans.

“During most of its history,” Odegard said, “the Pacific Northwest has been a colonial outpost of the East. It has been looked upon and has regarded itself as a source of raw materials to be shipped to eastern cities for processing or fabrication.” After comparing the region to the American South and talking about “cultural colonialism,” in which a region or country is guided by cultural standards set elsewhere, he proclaimed, “There are signs that the colonial period of northwestern history may be coming to a close.”

While Odegard and the other conference participants—including politician and journalist Richard L. Neuberger, folk writer and Northwest interpreter Stewart Holbrook, and noted Columbia University historian Carl Van Doren—deserve some credit for beginning the difficult task of defining a region in literary and historical terms, they, like other white men of their time (and today), failed to see that what they were engaged in was a colonializing enterprise itself.

The Pacific Northwest they were discussing was a white Pacific Northwest that began, in their minds, when “tens of thousands of migrants” moved into a region that “lay hidden on the outer fringes of western civilization, inhabited only by people of primitive culture, whose science was magic and whose literature was the folklore of the tribe.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that all of the conference organizers and speakers were white men, as were all but a few of the participants in its discussion panels—and those few were white women.

I learned about the 1946 conference when, in the course of doing research for a Northwest-centered project, I discovered a book called Northwest Harvest: A Regional Stock-Taking (The MacMillan Co., 1948), a collection of the conference’s major papers. As you might expect, given the time and makeup of the conference, the entries in it are chockful of ethnocentric and supremacist views, not only of the Northwest but of literature, the United States, and the idea of “progress.” Its main value lies in the snapshot it gives of dominant-culture thinking about the Northwest at a time when its straight, white, privileged, and male inhabitants were just beginning to consider it a distinct place.

The purpose of this website is to do a new kind of stock-taking—to present and examine literary and historical depictions of the Pacific Northwest in a contemporary context. Over the past 75 years, the Northwest has become not only a place people pay attention to but also a place of diverse perspectives and strong, divergent voices. Among the Northwest writers who have entered the national literary conversation are: Mitchell S. Jackson, Cheryl Strayed, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sherman Alexie, David James Duncan, Molly Gloss, Sharma Shields, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Timothy Egan. The visions these writers present of the Northwest region are not only vastly different from those expressed in that 1946 conference, they’re also vastly different from one another.

While contemplation of contemporary literary depictions of Northwest life and history will be one of the website’s main aims, it will also present less-lofty considerations of the region’s history, environment, social change, and popular culture. The main intent is simply to explore the many ways writers and others are—and have been—Writing the Northwest.

To that end, I hope you’ll send me suggestions for topics to explore and writings to present or link to, especially those that might be less-known. And if you have a post to propose, please send me a query. I’ll get things started with a few initial posts, but my hope is to make this site a place of many viewpoints and robust discussion.

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