In his new book, West of Here, novelist Jonathan Evison takes readers back to one of the last unexplored territories of the American West: Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. The novel centers on the story of a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest, told from the perspectives of the people who first settled there and their modern-day counterparts, who now have to live with the decisions that their ancestors made. In essence, the book is a conversation between past and present, between hopeful settlers and modern-day strugglers.
Evison spent most of his life hiking and camping out on the Olympic Peninsula, so he understands its uncompromising beauty. He is fascinated by its history, by the people who explored the rugged terrain of the Olympic Mountains and built the towns that sit in their shadow — but he says that he didn't want to feel trapped by writing about the area's general history and wanted to dive into more specific stories.
"So often when we historicize material we use this big wide-angle lens," he says. "The novel I wanted to write, instead of a wide-angle lens, was a kaleidoscope of clashing and overlapping first-person narratives."
Evison began his research by poking around in the local libraries of towns up and down the Olympic Peninsula: "I found that at all these little libraries in Port Angeles and Sequim and Shelton and all these peninsula towns, you can find all these wonderful little tape-bound manuscripts. Some of them are 15 pages long, some of them are 100 pages long, but they're personalized, first-person accounts of frontier living."
From these personal accounts, Evison created the cast of characters who first lived in the fictional town of Port Bonita, Wash.: the Native Americans who have already been marginalized in their own homeland; the explorers who came to conquer a wilderness that had long been considered impenetrable; and the settlers who think they can impose their will on this wilderness. One of those settlers, a young man named Ethan Thornburgh, arrives in town on a steamer from Seattle, ready to reinvent himself. He decides to build a dam to secure the future of Port Bonita.
Evison moves the story back and forth from the past to the present, linking the actions of those who founded the town in the late 19th century with the people who still live there. As the book opens, it is 2006 and Thornburgh's dam, once a source of pride for Port Bonita, is being dismantled. The power harnessed by that dam did make the growth of Port Bonita possible, but the town never rose to greatness — and, says Evison, this type of dam wreaked havoc on the environment.
"It killed probably the greatest salmon run in the world," he says. "I mean there used to be ... the annual salmon run up the Elwha was something like half a million salmon. It's down under 4,000 last I checked."
Evison's fictional town in the present day still sits on the edge of a pristine wilderness, but it is a worn-out place. The residents of Port Bonita are funny, quirky and a little sad. Where once brave but foolhardy explorers set off to conquer the formidable Olympic Mountains, now an ex-con follows the same trail hoping to find redemption in the wilderness. Two young Native Americans commune over time: one from the past who is thought to have spiritual powers, the other a contemporary teenager strung out on drugs. And a descendant of one of the first settlers in the town holds fast to his belief in the mythical creature sasquatch. Evison says he couldn't write a novel about the Pacific Northwest without including the story of Bigfoot.
"I like this idea that there is still something out there," he says. "I want to believe in this idea that there is still something we don't know about lurking in these mountains. Because most of those possibilities are gone. Homesteading is gone. Most of the economic infrastructure that allowed this place to exist in the first place, and the resources, are gutted."
The people of Port Bonita, says Evison, have not been left much of a legacy. The dreams of their ancestors have not been fulfilled and for the most part, neither have their own.
"The potential was endless and now the people waking up there today have to reconcile their future with their past before they can begin again," he says. "I think the book is hopeful, ultimately. We're still forced to reckon with our early mistakes. But I still believe in the old American ethic of putting your shoulder to the wheel and figuring out where we go from here."