Many astute observers have noted that the Pacific Northwest doesn't quite fit in the American West, a land where the most apt word is aridity; yet here we are, moist, green, mountainous, ocean-lined, and irrevocably the upper left corner until such time as the Great Quake makes us an island. Yet we are not just gray and green; we are also high sage deserts, vast wheatlands, roaring rivers, many millions of people. What are the basic texts for understanding this anomalous West, this species of Westerner?
In no particular order, here are a few, with an Oregonian bent; all due respect to our cousins Washington and Idaho and Montana and Alaska:
Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey, 1964. Best novel ever about Oregon, a brawling prickly dense muddled muddy sweeping epic in which rain is arguably the main character. Made into an awful movie, unlike Kesey's other great novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is a terrific film.
The River Why, by David Duncan, 1983. The great novel about coastal rivers and salmon-fishing, sort of, although of course it is really finally about love and epiphany and growing up a little. Duncan, like Kesey, wrote a second masterpiece, also a glorious book about the Northwest, The Brothers K, which is three times as thick and twice as coherent as his first; but The River Why is a classic I'd make every teenager here read if I was in charge.
Wildmen, Wobblies, & Whistlepunks, by Stewart Holbrook, edited by Brian Booth, 1992. No one has ever written about loggers, robbers, hookers, charlatans, mountebanks, false prophets, fallen utopias, sailors, taverns, crime, and hilarity here quite like Holbrook, a Vermonter who famously, after his first few days wandering the vast cedar and fir forests here, nailed his bowler hat to a stump and declared he was home.
Ricochet River, by Robin Cody, 1992, another great coming-of-age-in-Oregon novel, and, says Cody himself, the worst feature film ever made in the United States, its only redeeming value being that it was Kate Hudson's first movie.
River Notes, by Barry Lopez, 1979. The state's great modern writer, a visionary who at his best makes tales that are riveting, mythic, penetrating, evocative, and unforgettable. A land riven by great waters is blessed by a great poet of waters.
Riverwalking, by Kathleen Dean Moore, 1996. Speaking of rivers, a gentle and sharp-eyed essayist here considers all sorts of waters and rushing prayers. Beautiful. Read it back-to-back-to-back with The Habit of Rivers, by Ted Leeson, and Reach of Tide, Ring of History, by the late Sam McKinney.
Stepping Westward, by Sallie Tisdale, 1991. This Portland writer's best books are perhaps Lot's Wife, about the lore and legends of salt, and Harvest Moon, about being a nurse, but her memoir-rumination about childhood in the Klamath basin and adulthood in Oregon is thoughtful, piercing, stimulating, and lovely.
Hole in the Sky, by William Kittredge, 1992. Best known as a longtime Montanan, Kittredge was born and raised on a vast ranch in dry Oregon, and this haunting memoir about breaking nature and being broken as a man is the great book (so far) of the high Northwest desert.
The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, by Alvin Josephy, 1965. In many ways this single book opened modern history and culture to the reality of settlement in the West, and Josephy, also the author of the remarkable 500 Nations, was a lyrical and meticulous writer.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by scholar Frank Bergon, 1989. The Iliad and Odyssey of American literature, as Bergon says, and a colorful, often funny, remarkable account of a great journey through the West. And the spelling variations are to die for.
Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, by Robert Leo Heilman, 1995. A collection of pieces by a wry, angry, open-hearted essayist deep in the timber country of southern Oregon. As the extractive industry here ended in its roaring form, an elegy.
Having Everything Right, by Kim Stafford, 1986. Best known as a poet, and patient shoulderer of the capacious legacy of his brilliant poet dad William Stafford, Kim Stafford is also a very fine essayist, and this is perhaps his best book, being the most grounded in the soil and bees and trees and hopes of Cascadia.
And finally Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land by Robert Michael Pyle, 1986, or maybe his new Sky Time in Gray's River, both thorough, humorous, informed (Pyle is a master naturalist) tomes about all sorts of beings in the Willapa Hills of Washington state.
If there was ale enough and time we could talk about so very many other writers of the Northwest - John Daniel and Tom Robbins, Ivan Doig and John Haines, Annie Dillard and John McPhee, Norman Maclean and Ursula Le Guin, David Guterson and Jack London, Thomas McGuane and Don Berry - but here comes the end of the page and the pint, so. ...
The author is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of eight books, none of which is one of the best ever in the Northwest.