Jonathan Evison’s second novel, West of Here, is a sprawling tale spanning three centuries in the fictional Olympic Peninsula town of Port Bonita. The story opens in 1889, just after Washington became the 42nd state on November 11, 1889. It careens from 1889 to 2006 interlacing multitudes of character studies and vignettes between the two eras.
The novel opens in 1889 when one of the many main characters from that century, Ethan Thornburgh, steps off the steamer into gritty Port Bonita. He arrives from Chicago, “all buttoned up in a brown suit with tails, freshly coiffed, smelling of camphor and spices, his cleft chin clean-shaven, a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing.” He’s an ideas man, but the ideas as yet haven’t been too profitable as evidenced by the fact that the moth-eaten state of seat of his trousers is disguised by the liberal application of shoe polish to his underwear.
He has followed his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Eva Lambert, out to Port Bonita in the hopes of convincing her to give up her life as a journalist and contributing member to the Utopian society that was recently founded near Port Bonita. While trying to establish a homestead claim along the Elwha River, Ethan has a brainstorm. He has a vision of harnessing the river by creating a dam that will fill the valley with electricity and enable Port Bonita to grow to rival Seattle.
That’s the synopsis of just one of the many storylines contained within this book. A lot of the storylines from 1889 connect to descendants still living in Port Bonita in 2006. For example, in 2006 Jared Thornburgh, Ethan’s great-grandson, is managing the lone remaining fish processing plant in Port Bonita and trying to figure out what to say at a ceremony commemorating the beginning of the demolition of the Elwha dam; the same dam that started his family’s rise to prominence in the community. Throughout the book the characters from the modern era seem more discouraged and dissolute than their ancestors.
There is a pair of Native American Indian boys who share an almost magic-realism connection between the centuries. Thomas is the Indian who in 1889 appears to be suffering from epilepsy and/or autism. But perhaps he’s really just communicating with Curtis who is his doppelganger from 2006? There are parallels between many of the characters in 1889 and 2006. The character list just goes on and on.
West of Here is a big bold story about the northwest corner of the Pacific Northwest. But because there were so many superficial characters, and the viewpoint changed so often it was hard to get too invested in the story and keep everything straight. Every time I’d settle in to be transported back into the story, the time period, or the character would change. Switching gears all the time became tiresome. Evison’s descriptions about the local area were spot on, but he could have done with fewer superfluous characters for my taste.
Krista lives just outside the urban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. Lamentably, her work as a technical writer and business analyst often interferes with her reading which is a true passion.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Algonquin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.