Jonathan Evison's West of Here is a bit difficult to summarize. The story alternates between 1890 and 2006 and takes place in and around Port Bonita, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula.
In the late nineteenth century, Port Bonita was little more than a ramshackle, one-saloon town. But it was a place where Chinese, Shakers, explorers, visionaries, and entrepreneurs found themselves living--somewhat uncomfortably--as neighbors to each other and to the remaining Klallam Indians.
About a century later, the descendants of those individuals still live in Port Bonita and still face many of the same problems. The wilderness may have been paved over, but the town's citizens don't seem to have made much progress.
Evison developed at least four story lines for the historical part of the novel:
- A group of men attempt to explore and "conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory."
- The local Klallam Indians struggle to cope with encroaching easterners and easy access to alcohol.
- Two communities--one of Shakers, the other of idealists--have formed outside of Port Bonito, each group hoping to find the freedom to live according to its unique principles.
- Ethan Thornburgh, with the help of other settlers, stakes a claim and devises a plan to dam the river in an effort to bring electricity and thus prosperity to the region.
The modern part of the novel also contains multiple plots, usually involving at least one descendant from the founders of the town but not necessarily following through on the earlier threads. Common themes, however, connect the time periods, and include alcohol, women's issues, parenthood, socioeconomic divisions, prejudice, and the care of troubled children.
Among the strongest aspects of the novel are the descriptions of life on the peninsula in 1890. Evison is no romantic when writing about the muddy streets and smoky bars of Port Bonita and the awe-inspiring beauty and impassible ruggedness of the winter mountains. In either case, readers are thankful for modern technology.
Evison is equally skilled at creating characters. No small feat considering the vast number of individuals who populate the book. Even the most minor player is easily visualized, and as people change and react to their circumstances, they remain believable.
Unfortunately, the number of characters and variety of stories that make up the novel can be overwhelming, and the interconnections--among groups and across time--sometimes feel stretched or obscure. West from Here is an ambitious novel that contains moments of brilliance but also feels too big. It's as if the text could have been reworked to create five separate, but linked, novellas.
The quality of the writing makes Evison an author to watch, and I can't help but recommend that readers give West of Here a chance.
This book was published by Algonquin Books, a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.