Just a few weeks ago, I read an Australian novel by Patrick White, titled Voss. White’s historical novel was inspired by true events: the exploration of wild territory in the heart of the continent, much of it concerning the exploration party itself, and the hardships they went through. And now (completely by coincidence) I’ve read another, much in the same vein: West of Here by Jonathan Evison.
Evison’s novel has several threads (White’s novel had primarily two). Here the territory is the Pacific Northwest, that part of Washington State below Vancouver and the Juan De Fuca Strait (although the book contains several had drawn maps, I also kept Google Maps on hand, opened to that part of Washington). Evison’s tale is (in part) loosely based on the Press (named after the Seattle Press) Expedition, led by James Christie.
Moving back and forth between time periods, the novel is also concerned with the late nineteenth centuries’ assault on the environment, the exploitation of the indigenous people, and the consequences for the area in the 20th century. The expedition here begins in November 1889.
In 1889, upon the behest of a public clamoring for adventure, and a press eager to package new discoveries, thirty-four-year-old Arctic explorer, Indian fighter, and rugged individual James Mather was consigned to conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory, mere days in advance of its statehood.
As in Voss, this was no government sponsored expedition, but rather privately funded by business interests. James Mather and Voss‘s Johann Ulrich Voss are both strong personalities, and both lead their men into danger, hardly listening to other ponts of view. Autocrats. Both Mather and Voss leave behind a love interest, but in Evison’s novel it is hardly picked up, whereas in White’s Aussie epic, it is an integral part of the story,
However, there is a “love interest” of sorts, in Evison’s tale, though it’s one-sided: Eva Lambert is a strong a woman as is White’s Laura Trevelyan. Eva becomes pregnant by Ethan Thornburgh, who has grand visions of damning up the Elwha river to put the little outpost of Port Bonita on the map. He succeeds, but without Eva who has visions of muckraking journalism. She is thwarted by her sex and the monied interests who block her path. A concurrent thread has to do with the Indians of the peninsula, and especially of one Thomas, the product of a government census taker and Hoko, a native American. Thomas is seen as a mystic and visionary.
Fast forward to 2006: The rivers are barren of fish, there is pressure to reclaim the land by tearing down the dam, and various descendants or doppelgängers of the 1890 cast of characters populate the present. Some of these work, and some of them do not. The character of Curtis most definitely does not, and is uncomfortable at best…. Thomas and Curtis and KFC! Jaysus! The exploration is fine (as are most of the themes from the 1890’s) but the attempt to “match-up” characters a hundred years on? Not so much. The individual stories and the individual characters are mostly ok, but the authorial management left me cold. And the prose is too florid for my tastes. I’ll give one example (but there are many). Here, Ethan Thornburgh lifts his newborn baby from her bassinet:
He was overcome by her by her delicacy and diminutive grace: her tiny fingers clutching at his shirtfront, her dark downy hair and its smell of newness, the impossibly delicate veins ribbing her pink eyelids. He could not resist running his crooked thumb over her wrinkled forehead. She was everything the wilderness was not: delicate, vulnerable, small. And she everything worth taming it for….so that she should never…have to expose herself to the crushing forces of the wilderness…
Gong! Overuse of the word “delicate”! Penalty shot!
And (I know, i know – I said only one). Eva has a fever and issues “plaintive moans”. I hate it when moans are “plaintive”, dont’ you? And then sacre bleu! her fever breaks just as the dawn breaks. Yeah.
Evison: Fine story-teller, but I could do without the attempts at “literature”.