07 March 2011

Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

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.
As a whole, these story lines create a three-dimensional picture of the pivotal year of 1890.

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.

West of Here at Powell's
West of Here at Book Depository
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Published by Algonquin Books, February 2011
ISBN-13: 9781565129528
YTD: 25
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


bermudaonion 3/7/11, 8:09 AM  

Wonderful review! I agree that the writing was great, but the book tried to do too much.

Lynne Perednia 3/7/11, 8:32 AM  

Caveats aside, I am looking forward to reading this sprawling, ambitious novel. The Pacific Northwest is my part of the world and am delighted to see another author explore it.

Julie P. 3/7/11, 9:32 AM  

I admit that I haven't even picked up this one yet when I knew I'd miss our meeting. Not entirely sure it appeals to me. Great review!

Martha@Hey, I want to read that 3/7/11, 9:32 AM  

I am looking forward to this one but it's good to have a heads up about the "bigness" of this book.

Kathy 3/7/11, 9:46 AM  

I just wanted to thank you for my giveaway copy. I received it on Friday. It was packaged so beautifully and creatively.
Thanks again!

Madeline Mora-Summonte 3/7/11, 10:22 AM  

I agree with Martha@ - the heads up about the bigness of the book is a help. Don't worry, it's still on my list to read. :)

Zibilee 3/7/11, 11:31 AM  

I have heard that this book is just sort of sprawling and a bit all over the place. I had sort of been excited to read it, but there have been so many tepid reviews that I am now hanging back and am going to wait it out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with me.

Sandy Nawrot 3/7/11, 1:08 PM  

I'm STILL sitting here waiting for the arrival of the audio from the library, but I'm wondering if it will be difficult to following if I don't have printed words to look back on? I'm hearing respect for the book, but not glowing, gushing amounts of love.

Tea,  3/7/11, 3:07 PM  

Great review, all sorts of settlers makes for an interesting book. I now remember reading about this book. I once read a book about Shakers. From what I understood in our time they are not gaining a membership to support their ideas once the old ones are gone. I like to look at their furniture. You don't give spoilers. Thanx.

Nise' 3/7/11, 8:31 PM  

I just got the audio today and like Sandy, am wondering if I need the print book as well.

Michelle 3/7/11, 8:33 PM  

Looks like Algonquin does a good job of drawing you in again. Even if it's not overpowering gushy types of awesomeness. :)

Rebecca Rasmussen 3/8/11, 12:28 PM  

I definitely want to give this one a try :)

Kris 3/8/11, 2:48 PM  

It sounds good..but not one that I need to rush out and buy. I'm sure I'll pick up a copy one of these days though.

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