In late 2010, long before Borders was officially closing down, the novel West of Here arrived as ARC at my store. Still coming down from the high that was filming Judas Kiss in Seattle and remembering the grandeur and beauty of the area, I was intrigued by the book –an ambitious historical book on the Pacific Northwest. But as most book readers will tell you –and even writers- a lot of books end up on the shelf because either one other novel takes precedence or –as sometimes happens- you are not in the mood to read it. Such as what happened with Jonathan Evison’s book. I eventually passed on the ARC to my friend Carlos –writer of Judas Kiss- because he lives in Seattle when not roaming the United States (though by live, I mean it’s more of a place where he hangs a hat for a few weeks. I also never expected the book back, because I have so many others to read).
But something strange happened. The idea of the book never left me, and while I never thought about the book during Borders closing, I had been haunting used bookstores in search of it (which also brought me the realization that used bookstores very rarely have more unusual titles beyond really popular books. Finding “literature” amongst the mass produced, broad-based fiction is very hard in small used stores, which is why I have to venture to The Last Bookstore or Iliad’s these days to find titles outside of the James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele that haunt those types of stores).
I love history, but it can sometimes be dry and too academic. I have a few history books in boxes here, ones that I want to get to eventually, but as Lemony Snicket says, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.”
The fictional town of Port Bonita — a stand-in for Port Angeles — is at the center of West of Here, which is dually set in the winter of 1889-90 and the summer of 2006, as the story follows those hoping to build their legacies in the wilds of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula and their raggedy ancestors who, ironically, have lost the will that Manifest Destiny that excited their distant relatives. Evison cram’s a few novels into this ambitious book, along with a large set of characters and as the book steamed along, I became more interested in the people that made Port Bonita, especially characters like Eva –a pregnant, proto-suffragette woman from a wealthy family who longs to show her family and her baby’s father, Ethan, that she can survive in this new, utopian society. And then there is Thomas, the Indian boy known as the Storm King in 1890, and his metaphysical -maybe magical- connection to sullen teenager Curtis in 2006.
The novel has many parallels in the book – like how in the past, people seemed more adventurous, where in the present, and the town’s folk seemed trapped, not able to get away, and the author has a flare for description of the town and its people, but they do come off as superficial –maybe because he tried to cram too much into a slim book –it’s only 484 pages long.
Still, Evison is a good writer, and the story very entertaining, if not unwieldy towards the end. But overall, a fun –and sometimes funny – look at the past and the present.