If one were to peruse a chronological list of the books I’ve read since my teen years, one would witness a noticeable genre shift from science fiction only to a mix of sci-fi and mystery, exploration of general fiction, and later yet excursions into non-fiction travel literature. Nowadays I’ll read just about anything, although I draw the line at graphic novels featuring Richard Simmons in brightly colored leotards.
One of my favorite genres of the moment is historical fiction. Having been schooled under the “history is a list of dates” flag, I’m flabbergasted that the past can actually be fascinating when it’s not shrouded in dreaded textbook parlance but rather encased in sublime, delicate prose. Here are two spectacular reads set in the Pacific Northwest of about 100 years ago. Enjoy!
Deep Creek by Dana Hand
In 1887, more than 30 Chinese gold miners were massacred in a remote spot on the border between Idaho and Oregon. Judge Joe Vincent, the first person to find one of the mutilated bodies, is hired by the Sam Yup Company to unearth the killers. Joining him in the search is Lee Loi, a representative of the Company, and Grace Sundown, a local Metis guide who shares a nebulous history with Vincent.
The author paints amazing pictures of the region’s topography and geology as the trackers traverse the wild countryside. In this isolated corner of the territory hiding places are plentiful and clues are lacking, so the search is a difficult one with danger lurking around every bend in the river.
The excitement is redirected once the alleged killers are caught and put on trial. Sadly, we see a time and place where white mass murderers are more respected than innocent Chinese immigrants. Even Vincent, who is not particularly sympathetic towards the Chinese, is disgusted with the lack of justice.
This novel is based on a true story, and at the end the author lets us know which parts are fact and which are speculation. With primary source material sketchy at best, Hand does a masterful job of creating a believable and entertaining tale of Wild West justice. Prepare to journey with Vincent, to witness awe-inspiring scenery, to live on the cusp of danger, and finally to be frustrated by a system of justice which is not just for all.
The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg
The year is 1896 and the Estby family is about to lose their farm near Spokane, Washington. Helga Estby, the possibly manic-depressive matriarch of the family, devises a variety of harebrained schemes to raise money. Finally, she comes up with the notion of walking from Spokane to New York City, not only to raise money for the farm but also to raise public awareness of the women’s suffrage movement. After finding a sponsor in New York who offers $10,000 if Helga and her 17-year-old daughter Clara complete the journey in seven months, their trip begins.
Although mother and daughter have exciting adventures along the way, a 4,000 mile journey can be quite tedious. Shoes fall apart, water jugs run dry, tempers flare. Dagg (whose daughter, in an adventurous journey of her own, nearly drove me to Portland accidentally ) does an excellent job of mixing electrifying exploits with the mundane daily grind. The women clash with a roguish highwayman, survive a flash flood and teach Native Americans the fine art of hair curling, but the real story is the evolving relationship of a resentful, practical daughter with her stubborn, capricious mother.
The events in this novel are based on a true story which was lived by Dagg’s ancestors, and once again the author tells us which bits really happened and which are artistic license. The end product is a compelling adventure filled with hardship, discovery, and disappointment. As you undertake this journey with the Estby women you will see wondrous and unusual sights through Clara’s eyes, feel her pains and joys, and ultimately know the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a staggeringly overwhelming endeavor.
Other historical titles with local settings include Madison House by Peter Donahue, a novel set during the Denny regrade of the early 1900’s, and Reading Seattle: The City in Prose edited by Donahue and John Trombold, an anthology of prose set in Seattle.