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West of Here Hardcover – February 15, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2011: Jonathan Evison opens his electrifying epic, West of Here, at the Elwha River dam, where over a hundred years since settlers of the fictional town of Port Bonita tamed the river, their descendants gather in anticipation of the dam's blasting, and a new era of restoration. Across the next five hundred pages, Evison's story moves between 2006 and the town's earliest days at the close of the 19th century, overlaying stories of the people who passed through or dug in at Port Bonita, which swelled from settlement to town on the ragged shoreline of Washington State's Strait of Juan de Fuca. The past is populated by intrepid folk--an exploration party penetrating the Olympic Mountain range in the depths of winter, Klallam natives sickened by homeland eviction and whiskey, a young feminist at odds with motherhood, a prostitute doing covert battle with her whorehouse's owner, and an idealistic entrepreneur, blasting the river canyon into submission. In 2006, we meet their softer progeny--an ex-con who flees into the mountains with a stash of Snickers, the lonely parole officer determined to find him, a fish processing plant worker with a Bigfoot fixation, a native woman who rethinks her whole life when her son has a psychic break, and more memorable characters haunted by the past, by their unlived lives, by themselves. Though its themes are weighty, West of Here never bogs down--irreverent humor, lustrous prose, and unexpected moments animate a tale as vast as the land it inhabits. --Mari Malcolm
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A century after the late–19th-century settlers of Olympic Peninsula to the west of Seattle set out to build a dam, their descendants want to demolish it to bring back fish runs, providing one of the many plots in this satisfyingly meaty work from Evison (All About Lulu). The scenes of the early settlers track an expedition into the Olympic wilderness and the evolving relations between settlers and the Klallam tribe, provide insights into early feminism, and outline an entrepreneur's dream to build the all-important dam. By comparison, the contemporary stories are chock-full of modern woe and malaise, including a Bigfoot watcher and seafood plant worker who wishes to relive his glory days as a high school basketball star; an ex-convict who sets out into the wilderness to live off the land; and an environmental scientist who is hit with an unexpected development. Evison does a terrific job at creating a sense of place as he skips back and forth across the century, cutting between short chapters to sustain a propulsive momentum while juggling a sprawling network of plots and a massive cast of characters real enough to walk off the page. A big novel about the discovery and rediscovery of nature, starting over, and the sometimes piercing reverberations of history, this is a damn fine book. (Feb.)
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Top Customer Reviews
Set in the fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington, the book follows two timelines. The first timeline begins in 1889 and focuses on Port Bonita's founding and the damming of the Elwha River which gave the town its identity and life. This timeline is filled with men and women of vision and purpose, the world wide open to them if only they can make the right decisions. The second timeline is in the modern year 2006 and follows the descendants of those original founders. But for them, Port Bonita is no longer thriving, the dam no longer their salvation but their downfall. These men and women would like to have the same sense of purpose their ancestors did, but first they must somehow reconcile their past with their future. It might be time for Port Bonita and its inhabitants to make a change.
Jonathan Evison writes colorfully with a lot of humor and genuine affection for his many characters - not one written with anything less than absolute vibrancy and depth. The Washington wilderness itself is a character and his descriptions of it are so effortless and beautiful, you trust that he KNOWS this landscape. He makes you feel it.
The story itself is propulsive. At the beginning you will slowly begin to know the characters and follow them on their paths, learning more and more about them as you turn the pages, then the plot will start to take a stronger hold and pretty soon you will be unable to put the book down until you find out what everyone's destinies will be, until you are finished with the book and sad that it's over.
I am intrigued by the amount of research that went into the writing of this novel. What is factual and what is imagination? I want to look into the history of the area myself and learn everything I can about it. It's that pioneer spirit and sense of adventure that captures my attention and imbues in me a childlike sense of wonder at the vastness of things.
So, thanks to Jonathan Evison for writing such a spectacular book. I think West of Here is going to make a big splash in 2011 and it absolutely deserves the attention it's going to get.
My conclusion is this: The book was completely successful at fulfilling the author's goals, but was sorely lacking as a gripping historical novel, which, given the subject matter, it could have been.
Let me say that I have lived in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 40 years and am somewhat familiar with the region's early history as well as with the recent undamming of the Elwha River. I read the author's first novel, "All About Lulu," and was impressed with him as a writer. I was prepared to be swept away by "West of Here". Sadly, I was not.
Jonathan Evison, in his words, "set out to write a big, shaggy, egalitarian novel...Not a historical novel but a mythical novel about history...a deconstruction of what we generally call a history. Rather than employ a wide-angle lens for the task, I wanted to present a kaleidoscope of perspectives, and events, and convergences, and possibilities...This allowed `place' to assume the traditional role of protagonist, enabling me to treat all the other characters democratically..."
This is an ambitious and admirable goal, no doubt about it. For me as a reader, though, there were too many characters left lightly sketched, too lightly to really care about them, and there were too many whose fate I never learned. As I bounced back and forth between the 1890's and 2006, I too often got lost, and too often found instances where a 20th century attitude or belief system seemed to inform a 19th century character and where 21st century language flowed from the tongue of a pioneer. And while I liked the idea of following the descendants of the pioneers into the next century, even there something seemed lacking, as though the surname had been passed along without any sense of how being descended from someone who shaped history might have shaped family. But perhaps human history doesn't shape family. Perhaps each generation makes itself in its own image, and all that remains of the past is the irony of grandsons of enemies being friends.
Evison's comments about his intentions continue: "I wanted this novel [to] be full of wonder and adventure and mystery and humor, because these are the things that sustain us. I wanted this novel to surprise and sadden and give thanks to the undying spirit of wilderness that lives inside of all of us. I wanted this novel to be as big and beautiful and complicated as the peninsula that inspired it. A tall order, but I did my best. I'll leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether West of Here fulfills any of these ambitions. Me, I'm going camping."
Happy camping, Mr. Evison. This book did not work for me...but I can't wait to read your next one.