WEST OF HERE by Jonathan Evison

Book Quote:

“We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (FEB 16, 2011)

Visit the website for the National Park Service and you will find that the Elwha River Restoration project is a key one for the Olympic National Park in Washington state. “Elwha River Restoration will restore the river to its natural free-flowing state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to once again reach habitat and spawning grounds,” the project literature explains.

It is with this kernel of truth that writer Jonathan Evison spins a grand tale in his new novel, West of Here. The novel essentially looks at environmental decisions made during the late 1800s, when the American frontier moved rapidly west, and land grabs were in full swing—and the consequences of those same decisions more than a hundred years on.

Arguably the central protagonist in the novel—one populated by dozens of characters—is Ethan Thornburgh who envisions a dam across the mighty Elwha to harness its energy. “We’ll transform this place, for a hundred miles in every direction. Our dam will be a force of nature.” Thornburgh predicts.

In a twisted way, Thornburgh’s prediction comes true—the dam certainly “transforms” Port Bonita, the fictional town on the river’s banks, but not in the way that Thornburgh intended.

Fast forward to 2006, and Port Bonitans are struggling. Fishing, once a thriving business in town, is no longer a viable industry—the dam has seen to that. The town’s commercial fish processing plants serially shut down and only one lonely one is left to go on. Nevertheless Port Bonitans remain hopeful as they celebrate their heritage and look forward to the dam becoming a thing of the past soon. A poster around town perhaps says it best:

“Dam Days, September 2-3
Come celebrate over 100 years of Port Bonita history!
Featuring Live Music, Logging Competition, Chainsaw Carving Contest, and World-Famous Salmon Bake
Proudly presented in part by your neighbors at Wal-Mart.

It is at this “Dam Days” event that Jared Thornburgh, the manager of the fish processing plant, is expected to give the keynote speech. Jared, a descendant of the ambitious Ethan Thornburgh, has none of his predecessor’s fire. Instead his life is in mid-life stasis, consumed wholly by everyday trivialities. Forever bogged down by the weight of history, Jared worries he never quite measures up to the family name. “He forever lived in the shadow of this obsolete dam, his fortune linked inextricably to its hulking existence, its legacy of ecological menace,” Evison writes.

The novel moves back and forth between two times—the relatively recent present set in 2006 and the past set in 1890. A whole assorted set of characters populates each time period. Evison tries hard—sometimes too hard—to create characters in 2006 that are analogous to ones in the past. So it is that there’s an ex-convict Timmon Tillman who traces the same treacherous path along the Olympic National Park, that James Mather, an adventurous pioneer once did.

Native Americans, especially members of the Klallam tribe, also populate these pages as they too try to adapt to a changing landscape.

Evison traverses a lot of ground in this hefty novel and given its length it is remarkably well edited. The problem with West of Here is that it ultimately can’t move beyond its cast of characters to look at the wider picture and explore complexities. Evison loses the forest for the trees. As the book winds down, the “happily ever after” ending seems pat especially given the interesting complexities each of the characters started out with. It’s almost as if Evison finally ran out of steam and decided to wrap it all up with a neat bow. Notwithstanding this, West of Here truly transports the reader and lovers of a meaty story will really take to the novel.

In his “Dam Days” address, Jared Thornburgh echoes the words of his predecessor when he describes Port Bonita as “not an address, after all, not even a place, but a spirit, an essence, a pulse—a future still unfolding.”   For all the pep talk, Jared Thornburgh might be papering over the truth. After all, one might wonder, what kind of future does it portend when the only two times that someone from Port Bonita actually managed a modicum of success, was when each broke free?

As the residents of Port Bonita learn, some essential truths remain unchanged over centuries. “Can we really be whoever we want to be, now that we’ve collected all that we are?” asks one of the characters in the novel. The answer to that essential question is “Maybe.” Which, as it turns out, is still the same answer in 2006 as it was in 1890. Nevertheless, that answer carries with it some measure of hope—and that just might be enough for the hearty Port Bonitans.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 92 readers
PUBLISHER: Algonquin Books (February 15, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jonathan Evison
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More novels set in the Pacific Northwest:


February 16, 2011 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Facing History, US Northwest, Wild West

2 Responses

  1. dougbrun - February 16, 2011

    P ~ Thanks for the review. Insightful and clear-headed as always. I’m a member of the book club at The Nervous Breakdown. (It’s my way of supporting the site, since they have the patience and whatever else it takes to keep me as a contributor.) The books all come from Algonquin, which continues to impress me with it’s titles. This book, West of Here, arrived last month. I gave it to my neighbor who called it “great.” The previous month I was sent The Visiting Suit. Carole just finished it–today actually–and liked it very much. Algonquin seems to be a publisher who is carving out a niche in the marketplace by bringing new and interesting writers into print. (Hell, they even contacted me–an idea totally contrary to their apparent strategy!)

    When I read your reviews I’m reminded of a comment J.D. Salinger made. He had just purchased a Magtag washer dryer and the saleman quoted Ruskin to him–something about where quality counts, price doesn’t. He related the story to Lillian Ross and said, “God how I still love private readers. It’s what we all used to be.” You are such a good private reader!

  2. poornima - February 16, 2011

    Doug, thanks so much for your kind comment. Especially high praise coming from a reader (and reviewer) like you! Thanks!

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