Author explores in ‘West of Here’

Jonathan Evison spans 100 years through Pacific Northwest history

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Jonathan Evisonís West of Here is a book that asks a lot of its readers. But you get out of it what you put in, and itís a great story if you pay attention.

It is a historical novel set in the 1890s in what was, at the time, the last of the American frontier (Alaska notwithstanding), the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, it takes place in the fictional town of Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Seattle.

In a story told many times in the Old West, a hardy group of settlers cut a town out of the wilderness and do their damndest to overcome Mother Nature at every turn.

That even includes damming a local river, the Elwah.

And thatís where West of Here differs from most historical narratives. Evison jumps ahead a century or so, and we meet the modern-day descendents of his 19th-century characters James Mather and Ethan Thornburgh.

We see the direct results, albeit 100 years removed, of the actions of the pioneers: One manís legacy is another manís ageless scar. A man who is a hero in his own day may someday be remembered as one of historyís greatest criminals, and his family could beviewed as pariahs in their own communities.

Woven into the novel are several subplots: A hooker with a heart of gold makes a name for herself in the new town; an idealistic woman tries to raise a newborn in those rough surroundings, and Native Americans are, again, the victims of white settlement. Itís an ambitious attempt by Evison and one that he couldíve turned into two or three novels.

But he didnít. West of Here succeeds in spite of its shortcomings, because Evison is a talented storyteller.

The language is authentic, the story is solid if disjointed Ė the jumps through time have pros and cons about their effect on the flow of the story Ė and the scene-setting is illustrative. I made the mistake of taking a couple of weeks off in the middle, and I had to almost start over to reorient myself.

Itís a novel best read in a day or two; if youíve got the time, itís worth the effort.