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'West Of Here': What Happened To The Frontier?

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'West Of Here': What Happened To The Frontier?


'West Of Here': What Happened To The Frontier?

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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. It's a story about a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest. It's told from the perspective of the people who first settled there and their modern-day counterparts who have to live with the decisions they made.

NPR's Lynn Neary says the book is a kind of conversation between past and present.

LYNN NEARY: Jonathan Evison has spent most of his life hiking and camping out on the Olympic Peninsula. He understands its uncompromising beauty. He's 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.

Evison says he wanted to write a novel about the history of the peninsula, but he didn't want to be trapped by history.

Mr. JONATHAN EVISON (Author, "West of Here"): So often when we historicize material, we use this big, wide-angle lens. And the novel I wanted to write, instead of a wide-angle lens, was a kaleidoscope of clashing and overlapping first-person narratives.

NEARY: So Evison began his research by poking around in the local libraries of towns up and down the Olympic Peninsula.

Mr. EVISON: And I found that at all these little libraries in Port Angeles and Sequim and Shelton, and all these peninsula towns, you can find these wonderful little tape-bound manuscripts. Some of them are 15 pages long, some of them are a hundred pages long, but they're personalized, first-person accounts of frontier living.

NEARY: From these first-person accounts, Evison created the cast of characters who first lived in the fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington: 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 re-invent himself. He decides to build a dam to insure the future of Port Bonita.

Mr. EVISON: (Reading) We'll transform this place, Jake, for a hundred miles in every direction. Our dam will be a force of nature. Ethan unpocketed his pipe and tobacco and packed a bowl and puffed, relishing the endless possibilities of progress. A glittering city will take shape along that strait, Jake. You wait and see. And standing there on the lip of the gorge, with a stiff wind rocketing passed his ears, his arm draped over the shoulder of the man whom he hoped would soon be his brother-in-law, Ethan envisioned a glorious future for Port Bonita - 20, 30, a hundred years and beyond.

NEARY: 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 the 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, the dam wreaked havoc on the environment.

Mr. EVISON: What it meant is it killed probably the greatest salmon run in the world. I mean, the there used to be something - the annual salmon run up the Elwah was something like half a million salmon, and it's down under 4,000, last I checked.

NEARY: The town still sits on the edge of a pristine wilderness, but it's 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 trade places: One from the past, who's thought to have spiritual powers, the other a contemporary teenager strung out on drugs. And a descendent of one of the first settlers in 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 Big Foot.

Mr. EVISON: I like this idea that there's still something out there. I want to believe in this idea that there's still something out there 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 have all been gutted. Those possibilities are gone. Big Foot is one of the possibilities that's still out there.

NEARY: 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.

Mr. EVISON: The potential was endless. And now the people waking up there today really have to sort of reconcile their future with their past, before they can even begin again. I think the book is hopeful, ultimately. I mean, yeah, we gutted our resources. 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.

NEARY: The story of Port Bonita, says the Evison, is the story of America. And the cockeyed optimism that fueled that story lives on in the people who have inherited the pride and the pain of the past.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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