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History Converges with Modern Drama in 'West of Here'

'West of Here' by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin Books)

By Valentina Tkachenko, Contributing Writer

Port Bonita, Wash. is the indubitable protagonist and common thread running through the parallel plotlines of Jonathan Evison’s second novel, “West of Here,” which follows his well-received 2008 debut, “All About Lulu.” The novel features an overabundance of characters living in the fictional town of Port Bonita in 1890 and 2006. Despite the temporal gap between the two plotlines, Evison maintains the novel’s continuity through short chapters that jump across time without leaving the distinctive locale.

The novel opens and closes with descriptions of the same scene in 2006. In order to truly understand the ending, the reader must return to the beginning—much like how the descendants of Port Bonita’s founders must look to the past in order to better understand their problems. In 1890, Ethan Thornburgh seeks to revolutionize the American West and make Port Bonita a commercial hub on the Pacific, finding an opportunity to do so in the Great Seattle Fire of summer, 1889. More than a century later, his great-great-grandson Jared must announce the demolition of the town’s dam due to concerns about the welfare of the local salmon population.

Evison prevents the narrative from becoming overburdened with characters by crafting circumstantial parallels between the two plots, unifying a story that would otherwise feel disjointed. A modern ex-convict named Timmon escapes parole by using the travel log of an expedition that passed through Port Bonita in 1890. Two fiercely independent women living 116 years apart find themselves in similar predicaments after becoming pregnant. Two young Native American boys must deal with broken homes and personal demons.

Evison manipulates the narrative so that these parallel vignettes are presented close together, eliciting thought about the similarities and differences between the characters’ experiences. As Timmon realizes, “his fate was inextricably linked in the most arbitrary ways to things and people and events he’d never given a thought to.” The population of Port Bonita interacts in unpredictable ways, and this intricate web of connections makes each character engaging without creating emotional investment in any single individual. Ultimately this detachment proves that “West of Here” is a book more about a place and its collective population than it is bout any single protagonist.

The characters fight personal battles—some that pit them against one another, and others that see them working for the same cause—but it is Port Bonita itself which remains the centerpiece of Evison’s meandering plot. There is no end or beginning to “West of Here,” only happenings which transpire over two periods of several months, over a century apart. Due to Evison’s choice to forgo a single plot and to instead recount the lives of many individuals, his narrative maintains a realistic style that feels honest and genuine.

However, Evison endangers his credibility by introducing a supernatural element in the latter portion of the novel. It is not essential to the storytelling, and detracts from the plausibility necessary in a work so rooted in history. A large portion of the book concerns itself with the lives of Native Americans living in the territory, in the past and the present, and two individuals experience a “walk in the spirit world” which adds a distinct element of fantasy to Evison’s otherwise realistic plot. The abrupt appearance of this metaphysical episode deviates from the previously established form, a move so surprising that it undercuts the rapport and trust between author and reader that Evison tries to foster.

Evison’s language is clear and easy to read, and he provides stunningly beautiful descriptions of the Pacific Northwest, particularly through the eyes of James Mather, the leader of an 1890 expedition to Mount Olympus. His companion Haywood, who is also the expedition chronicler, writes about “a high-canopied forest fecund with rot, a brackish cathedral festooned with moss. [Haywood] would describe the biggest timber he’s ever laid eyes on, spruce wider than train cars, colonnades of hemlock so massive that ‘the wingspan of three men stretched finger to finger could not match the diameter of these giants.’ He would describe a soft and yielding forest floor, presenting a crust so brittle with rot that the casual footfall would break through the surface.” The comprehensive detail of Evison’s descriptions of nature reveals his deep knowledge of the beauty and potential danger of the region.

The gorgeous but often harsh landscape aside, people play an important role in this novel, and Evison sympathetically and comprehensively protrays their interactions with their history, their city, and each other. The dying words of Chief Lord Jim express this sentiment best: “We are born haunted … Haunted by our fathers and mothers and daughters, and by people we don’t remember. We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. And even as our own flame burns brightest, we are haunted by the embers of the first dying fire. But mostly, we are haunted by ourselves.” The characters whose paths cross in Port Bonita are haunted by one another and by the spirit of the town itself. Evison develops their interconnectedness so that even the most tangential and banal encounters have unforeseen consequences as history pushes the town forward, ultimately allowing one individual to escape and find his own frontier. Port Bonita remains a frontier settlement at its core—when there is nothing new there to explore, the characters move on.

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