Autumn Reading, Skillful Writing (September 30, 2022)
September has been a transitional month for Nancy and me. From summer to fall, stultifying heatwaves to the first blessed rains. But also shifting gears from our Northwest Coast vacation mobility to more sedentary routines here at our Bay Area retirement community. Unpacking and storing suitcases, dining with friends, rebooking postponed medical appointments, queuing up for our bivalent COVID booster, attacking teetering stacks of unsolicited mail, even participating in a wildfire evacuation drill.
For my catch-up reading, I’ve selected four inviting titles from local libraries:
- A historical novel to deepen my knowledge of the San Juan Islands;
- An ad hoc trio of wilderness adventures featuring reclusive female protagonists.
All are well-crafted national prizewinners. I’d like to recommend them for your autumn enjoyment.
David Guterson, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (1994)
With the Pacific Northwest still much on my mind, I was surprised to spot this Puget Sound classic on a “Recent Acquisitions” shelf. I remember it well from its mid-90s publication. Nancy and I had been living in Hawaii when this novel made a nation-wide commercial and critical splash. Selling four million copies, it won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award. Since I’d never gotten around to reading it before we departed for Central Asia, now 25 years later I decided to utilize it as a channel for learning more about the region and residents we’d just visited.
It’s an impressive, artful book, especially for a first novel. Current research informed me that author David Guterson had labored on it for a full decade of evenings, while earning his bread as a local journalist and public schoolteacher. As it turned out, this debut creation was the high point of his literary career.
Set on the fictional island of San Pedro, evoking San Juan, in fact the novel’s geography and history were primarily based on Bainbridge Island further south, where the author and his family reside. As a local journalist, Guterson did a lot of homework. The book’s considerable strengths include its detailed descriptions of traditional industries, primarily commercial salmon- fishing and strawberry-farming. He describes this off-shore enclave and its challenging environment with familiarity and confidence.
An experienced short-story writer, Guterson is most engaging and entertaining when sketching community customs and cultures, assumptions and prejudices, spoken and unspoken dialogue, small-town landscapes and the dynamics of daily life. Even when not central to his plot, some of this Norman Rockwell stylizing contributes convincing color:
San Pedro fishermen, in 1954, were apt to pay attention to signs and portents other men had no inkling of. For them the web of cause and effect was invisible and simultaneously everywhere, which was why a man could sink his net with salmon one night and catch only kelp the next. Tides, currents, and winds were one thing, the force of luck another. A fisherman didn’t utter the words horse, pig or hog on the deck of a gill-netter, for to do so was to bring bad weather down around his head or cause a line to foul in his propeller. Turning a hatch cover upside down brought a southwest storm, and bringing a black suitcase on board meant snarled gear and twisted webbing. Those who harmed seagulls risked the wrath of ship ghosts, for gulls were inhabited by the spirits of men who had been lost at sea in accidents. Umbrellas, too, were bad business, as were broken mirrors and the gift of a pair of scissors. On board a purse seiner only a greenhorn would ever think to trim his fingernails while sitting on a seine pile, or hand a shipmate a bar of soap as opposed to dropping it into his washbasin, or cut the bottom end off a can of fruit. Bad fishing and bad weather could result from any of these.
People – families, lovers, neighbors, fishing rivals – are what make this story tick. But they survive (and perish) on land and water. And weather is always dominant: fog, wind, ice and snow. It determines their moods, their movements and their minds. You get the impression these hardy survivors are still precarious transients, even after generations of digging in.
Also crucial for this narrative is the historical moment as well as the constricted space. To animate the island’s inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts, Guterson turned back his narrative clock to 1954, then earlier to the attack on Pearl Harbor. This allowed him to narrow focus onto Caucasian/Japanese-American relationships and ruptures. To deepen World War II context and influence, the author inserted powerful scenes describing California’s notorious internment camp of Manzanar and the blood-soaked beaches of Tarawa. More intimate but also moving were his accounts of parentally-discouraged East/West teen romances.
What didn’t work well for me was his central courtroom drama of the murder trial of a local Japanese-American fisherman. Guterson was apparently inspired by his trial-attorney father plus To Kill a Mockingbird. But here the litigation advanced as a series of mano-a-mano gotchas exchanged between the racist prosecutor and the earnest-but-ailing defense counsel. I was equally discouraged by no fewer than three deus-ex-machina plot twists at the end of the drama which tied up loose ends at the expense of credibility.
Lots to admire here. Not one for the ages, but a serious contributor to enhanced awareness of these islands’ complex history and resilient divisions.
Eowyn Ivey, THE SNOW CHILD (2012)
2200 miles up the Northwest Coast from Bainbridge Island, Eowyn Ivey sets her novel in the Alaskan frontier. Mountains and rivers replace straits and shores. The year is 1920. A young married couple struggles to make a fresh start, carving out a homestead worlds away from their Lower-48 origins and tragedies.
Like David Guterson, Eowyn Ivey worked for a decade in this environment before tackling this debut novel. Her genre is not history or ethnic conflict. Hers is a fairy tale for adults, with a solid grounding in anthropology. This is the domain of Tolkien, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King. No gingerbread houses but close encounters. As for those respected tale-crafters, Ivey’s creative challenge is to slowly stretch skeptical readers’ imaginations.
She goes about it step by step: first concentrating on the couple’s ground-clearing trials. Next on their matrimonial stresses, fatigue and estrangement. Next, suggesting that the sensitive wife’s perceptions and judgments are compromised by depression. Then ever so slowly revealing that this emotionally weaker and wounded spouse is in fact the more receptive.
All of this stage-setting is substantiated and grounded in harsh climatological realities. Ice and mud. Inexorably advancing seasons. Hunger and bone-chilling cold. Stump-clearing and ploughing; tracking, trapping and hunting. Storing and cooking. Standing up to intrusive veteran neighbors. Greenhorns’ errors, discouragement and defeats. Fear, injury and isolation. And a macho husband fighting his own battles to “conquer the wilderness.” There are no cheap-shot caricatures here. Just plain folks being tested beyond their knowledge and experience:
Jack had always considered himself if not brave, then at least competent and sure. He was wary of true danger, of flighty horses that could break your back and farm tools that could sever limbs, but he had always scoffed at the superstitious and mystical. Alone in the depths of the wilderness, however, in the fading winter light, he had discovered in himself an animal-like fear. What shamed him all the more was that he could not name it. If Mabel had asked what terrified him in the mountains, he could only have answered with the timid uncertainty of a child scared of the dark. Disturbing thoughts whirled through his brain, stories he must have heard as a boy about forest hags and men who turned into bears. What frightened him was the strange world of snow, rock and hushed trees.
I’ve no wish to divulge spoilers in these notes. This is a moving, charming, intense and powerful tale. Ivey never overplays her hand. Don’t expect bellowing Susquatches. Every development is anchored to plausible science. The newcomers’ faith remains credible. Long before the climax, the reader is pulling for it all to be true.
Delia Owens, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2018)
Where the Crawdads Sing wraps a survivor epic, teen romance and a small-town murder trial within a single narrative. This irresistible package most benefits from two distinctive features: a gutsy main character in the person of an abandoned, uneducated girl coming of age alone in the depths of the North Carolina marshes; and a natural environment so atmospheric that it becomes a supporting character in its own right. Owens begins sketching that exotic atmosphere in her book’s first paragraphs:
Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – against the roar of a thousand snow geese.
Then within the marsh, here and there, true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.
With so many creative assets, it’s perhaps no wonder this book topped national best-seller tables for more than a year. But it is a marvel that so accomplished a composition was the author’s debut novel.
For my taste, Owens’s repeated references to female insects’ mate-destroying power and her male characters’ brutal violence added up to excessive militant feminism. But her doctorate in biological sciences and decades of fieldwork researching matriarchal African mammals explain much of this gender perspective. You may not always agree with her about the battle of the sexes, but she’s done her homework and holds passionate convictions.
This is pop fiction with a punch. Well-conceived, well-framed, well-executed. Beyond the whodunit and the heartthrobs, there’s enough wildfowl feathers and seashells to illustrate a shore-life seminar.
Catherine Raven, FOX & I (2021)
From North Carolina marshes to Montana’s high desert, crime fiction to a naturalist’s memoir. The distance in tone and genre is much less than you might anticipate.
The author/narrator of Fox & I is a loner and introvert. She likes wildlife better than people, solitude and open space far more than crowds or towns. She occupies a rustic cabin “two miles up a gravel road in an isolated mountain valley and 60 miles from the nearest city.” With a doctorate in biology and additional degrees in zoology and botany, Catherine Raven earns a meagre living remotely teaching university classes. As a former National Parks Ranger, she tops up her income guiding back-country tourists. Were it not for cash-flow needs, she would much prefer to be left alone.
Raven’s memoir advances on two tandem tracks: as scientific field notes on fauna and flora; and as an eccentric recluse’s personal journal. She accordingly makes frequent reference to Henry David Thoreau and Antoine St. Exupery. At first, I thought the former analogy was by far the better fit: an anti-social thinker and writer self-isolating in nature. But gradually I realized that Raven was more romantic than scientist. The Little Prince too had a soul-mate fox.
What enriches her account and simultaneously salves her loneliness is the author’s acute alertness to her natural environment. She misses no sound or movement. She perceives the entire neighborhood as an integrated operating system: Gaia on solar power. Ants, flies, mice, voles, foxes and bobcats, deer and feral dogs, waxwings, owls, magpies, hawks and eagles. Grasses, berries, seeds and cedars. Clouds, rain, wind and stillness. For Raven, every natural component works together. Equally important, she learns that she works and feels best when she allows herself to cross over from observer to participant.
She invests incredible patience in building a trusting relationship with one animal neighbor, the fox of her memoir title. Week by week, inch by inch, the wild creature overcomes its natural hesitation and approaches:
Late afternoon, he would arrive for our rendezvous, sliding himself into the smoothest sitting spot available and leaving me jostling on rocks and bunchgrass in a tippy camp chair…Pressing his belly into the gravel and stretching his rear legs back as far as possible, he aimed his pay pads upward. I would squat and perch with the balls of my feet on the ground. One day, as he rose to move into another posture, I dropped to my hands and knees and faced him. Our eyes were level. Believing that I could rise if necessary, I inched toward him. Reaching his forepaws forward, he pulled himself closer to me. I shuffled back on all fours. He and his 42 sharp teeth elbowed forward again; I backed away. He, with his mouth opening wide enough to engulf my entire head, elbowed forward.
“We are playing chicken. If you turn away first, you lose.” Fox – who could sever a vole neatly in half with one snap of his jaw – glared. I waited only a few seconds before rolling back on my heels and rising….”You won,” I said. “I’m the chicken.”
Despite her intense emotional attachment, the author does not sugar-coat life-and-death developments. This non-fiction journal doesn’t censor its fair share of blood and guts. The more she loves, the more she loses.
I could have done with fewer ambulatory lectures to bored graduate students. Less cross-species bonding, less affection and anthropomorphizing. But Raven the resident was bravely and baldly reporting, about her own feelings as well as the ecosystem. A detached bean-counter would merely have compiled data. I came away believing that this oddly smitten recluse had conveyed a precious gift.