An epic tale of the Northwest: A review of West of Here


West of Here
Jonathan Evison
496 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
Algonquin Books, 2011.

Once home to the Siwash and Klallam tribes, then to frontiersmen and a Utopian community, the fictional town of Port Bonita, Wash., provides a fertile backdrop for Jonathan Evison's second novel, West of Here. Alternating between the late 19th century and the year 2006, Evison reveals how the lives of the original settlers shaped those of their descendants, most of whom struggle to recapture a sense of purpose.

Figures from the past include hardy dreamers and adventurers, from explorer John Mather and his team to Chicago transplants Eva Lambert and Ethan Thornburgh. Their ambitious vision and occasional hubris, together with that of their neighbors, provide Evison with ample opportunity to explore the Old Testament theme of generational sin. People tend to repeat their forebears' mistakes when it comes to the destruction of natural resources, but Evison suggests that patterns can change: "It was the Thornburgh dam (on the Elwha River) that put us on the map, that brought light to our fledgling towns. ... sometimes we must leave part of ourselves behind in order to move on."

Contemporary characters include the manager of a seafood-processing facility, an ex-convict and his parole officer, a teenager and his mother, and a variety of residents whose everyday concerns highlight their desire for a clear way out of deep emotional ruts. Though some characters are too rapidly drawn, including a prostitute with a heart of gold and an Indian boy with a quasi-mystical connection to his ancestor, the "Storm King," most of the characters' storylines are intelligent and involving, subtly pitting idealism against rugged practicality.

Past and present converge at the annual Dam Days celebration, when the Elwha River Restoration project is brought to the foreground. Discussing the prospect of the dam being torn down, Thornburgh's great-grandson recalls that "Port Bonita is not a place, but a spirit, an essence, a pulse; a future still unfolding," echoing the novel's theme of reinvention. Evison gives Port Bonita the intimacy and vibrancy of the best small towns while weaving a complex drama about the true meaning of legacies -- and their unforeseen consequences.

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