by Grace Edgington Jordan (1892-1985)
450 pgs. Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1960.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to live in a tiny rural town in the Northwest, Canyon Boy will give you a very good idea (despite the many changes in the world since the 1930s and 40s).
The book is about a fictional community in the vividly described country near Hells Canyon where the Snake and Salmon Rivers come together on the border of Oregon and Idaho. In the early years of the Great Depression, a young boy is orphaned when his mother dies in childbirth and his father disappears. Jay (as the boy has come to be called) is shuffled from one household to another as the economy and circumstances drive people to depart for other opportunities. Among the places Jay stays are two canyon-bottom ranches (one isolated, one desolate) and one at the top of the divide between the two rivers – he is indeed a boy of the canyons.
As Jay moves from family to family on the road to manhood, the reader gets an intimate and unvarnished look at the lives of the members of this small community. Jordan withholds judgment of her characters as they respond to the events of daily living, leaving it to the reader to pick up their inconsistencies and failings through their sharply observed interactions. There is a fly-on-the-wall quality to these realistically imagined lives, accentuated by Jay’s outsider status – though he is often valued and sometimes even loved, he is mostly seen by those who take him in as someone who can be put to work but to whom little responsibility is owed. His lack of a blood tie to the others is never forgotten.
Jordan has captured the harsh but beautiful canyon country in all its grandeur and complexity, including the claustrophobic isolation that comes from living in a small community amid vast wilderness. This novel by a little-known author deserves a larger audience, and it will appeal to readers who love multifaceted characters, dramatic Northwest settings, and a steadily moving plot. If you like Ivan Doig or Wallace Stegner you might want to give Canyon Boy a try.