Books that bind us: Your favorite Washington books and authors
Summer is a great time to curl up in the park with a good book. It's also a time when we start to thaw a bit from our Seattle freeze and head out to explore everything Washington has to offer. From the Palouse to the Peninsula, we have a lot of landscapes to explore.
Those landscapes — and their histories — have inspired many of our local authors. Soundside spoke with some of your favorite authors about the stories that make Washington a literary wonderland.
Recently, as part of NPR's series of 100 books to read about each state, Washington poet laureate Rena Priest nominated two books that she felt capture the spirit of Washington state: Timothy Egan's "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest," and Vine Deloria Jr.'s "Indians of the Pacific Northwest: From the Coming of the White Man to the Present Day."
"The thing that strikes me about 'The Good Rain' is just how beautifully he renders the natural abundance and splendor of the region," Priest told KUOW's Alexandra Rochester. "He talks about the damming of the rivers and the logging of the forests, the construction of Hanford. But there's a sense of hope and optimism that runs throughout the book, despite all of these things, all of these alterations, that the land is still giving and resilient and beautiful."
Both of Priest's selections focus on history, which she said is because of Washington's human and geologic roots.
"Vine Deloria Jr. talks at the start of his book about how indigenous oral storytelling has something in it that can speak to the very old history of this place," Priest said. "There's this coyote story about how [dry falls] was drained, and I think that those kinds of stories about the deep history, the geologic history, the history before humans — I think that enriches a person's experience of Washington state in particular."
Priest is currently working on a new anthology of salmon poems, celebrating the keystone species that has come to define so much of Washington's history. Washington-based poets can send in submissions for this anthology through Humanities Washington at their website.
We also asked our listeners about their favorite books written about Washington and by Washington-based authors. Soundside then reached out to those writers to hear more about the things that give Washington a strong literary backdrop. Here's what they said.
Timothy Egan, The Good Rain
Alex Rochester: What advantages or disadvantages are there to writing about your home state?
Timothy Egan: For me, it was like being in a completely new country. And first of all, I was dissatisfied, because the histories I read of the Pacific Northwest, the histories I was raised on in school were just BS. They were great, bearded railroad men pushing their way west, conquering all the Indians, and then taking over their territory, then leveling the hills, damming the rivers and cutting the trees and building cities, and then having statues erected in their honor. And I thought this is just such a terrible representation of this magical region. So when I set out, I wanted to look at it with fresh eyes, and look at it — this is the important thing — from the point of view of nature. So, I looked at a completely fresh, and it was both good and bad.
One of the original reviews of this book for The Washington Post, and I'll never forget this, they said, "an environmental tragedy told from the point of view of a smartass." Which isn't a bad, it's fairly close to the description. In one way, you go back and you look at this and say, "My God, what's happened to this place?" And the other way you say, as I say at the end of the book, this region that I grew up in, where I'm a third generation Northwestern, still has a lot of secrets, still has a lot of surprises, still can make you whole and make you feel renewed in certain ways.
It's been 30 years since you wrote this book. How different would the book be if you'd written it today?
People always ask me that and say wouldn't it be cool to go do a "Good Rain" part two? What would it be today, with two or three million more people with a lot of the forests of the Northwest in the summer either ablaze or dying because of the beetle infestation, with salmon runs that used to come through Lake Washington through the locks and up to the Cedar River, basically, a spectral presence to what they were. But I don't know what it would be like to look at it today.
I'm an inherently optimistic person. And when I wrote this book, I was fairly optimistic that we could overcome these things. It's just a huge fight to try to preserve the original character of a region when you've got global forces going on too. And that's the one thing that's really missing, we didn't know about it, which is climate change. So we're just coming out of a heatwave. Last year, we had this heat dome sitting on us. And this is astonishing. About 800 people died in that heat dome related extreme last year. It's a slaughter. I wrote a book about the largest wildfire in the history of North America called them the Big Burn, and 100 people died there. Well, 800 people died that in that heat, and we didn't have that when I wrote the book. And that's a big thing that's sitting on top of us that would really color my view, if I were to do this book, fresh today.
What book would you recommend to listeners?
I've always liked a book by Ken Kesey called "Sometimes a Great Notion," which is about a timber family in Oregon, in the Willamette Valley. It's 700 pages or something. He really captures, especially in the winter, the movie essence of the place, what constant rain does when it gets into you after six months of not seeing the sun, the sort of character that comes from living in a wet climate, and it's a multi-generational saga.
Listener, Blair Destro from Bainbridge Island: I would like to recommend "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison. It struck me as relevant due to the growing wealth disparity where affluence and poverty live in such close proximity and yet inhabit completely different worlds in terms of opportunity.
Jonathan Evison, Lawn Boy
Alex Rochester: In this book, you know, the protagonist is grappling with his desire to be an author, which is considered beyond the realms of possibility for him because he was raised in a place that wasn't the most welcoming or supportive. Why did you decide to write about that?
Jonathan Evison: Well first, I'm kind of surprised of all my books, "Lawn Boy" was the one that somebody recommended. I would have thought it would have been "West of Here" or "Legends of the North Cascades" — something more quintessentially Northwestern. But I did have a very specific reason for "Lawn Boy" because it's a class narrative. And I used to be a landscaper and a lot of the crew came over from the other side of the Agate Pass Bridge, because Bainbridge is a pretty wealthy and affluent community, and that's where a lot of the gardens were worked on. But a lot of the laborers came from across the bridge to North Kitsap proper, and so we called it the "service entrance." It's a portrait of a different life on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, in comparison to somewhat wealthy Bainbridge Island.
In "Legends of the North Cascades," you you paint the mountains as something more enticing to the protagonist, and actually, like hanging out in society. Do you think that is something that's quintessential to Washington? Or is that something that's growing as an American sentiment with how fast modern life moves in general?
I think that Washington is kind of the last frontier of the contiguous United States. A lot of the people that came to Washington, they were coming to an outpost, and I do think that there's sort of a lingering sense of rugged individualism that still exists here in Washington, particularly because I live near Port Angeles. Port Angeles feels about as much like Alaska as anywhere you could be in the lower 48. There's a really strong libertarian streak that runs through it, people are very self sufficient and outdoorsy, everybody knows how to use a chainsaw. You know, most people can fix their cars, people are using to driving their garbage to the dump, instead of having it picked up at their curb and things like that. So to me, those things are are very Washington, because there's not many places in California, for instance, that are still really like that.
Any books you would recommend about Washington that you enjoy?
I love the way Jess Walter writes love letters to Spokane. That's one place I would start.
Jess Walter, The Cold Millions
Alex Rochester: I watched your talk at the University of Houston Victoria, in partnership with American Book Review. And you've talked a lot about how you think about place and you said you had to write about Spokane. Why did you have to write about Spokane?
Jess Walter: I think for me, specifically, the place I'm from was part of the story I was telling, part of my origin story. I had grown up believing that I had to leave Spokane to become successful as an author. The great poet from Spokane named Carolyn Kaiser, who was, I believe, the second woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, there was a line in her poems, something like, "After Spokane, what hell could exist?" And I think every writer has to leave their home and look back on it a certain way. But for me, staying for family became part of defining who I was, and then this realization that it is as much a part of me as my family, the place that I'm from. And so I don't think I was capable of writing really well until I could write about the place that I was from and write about what it meant to be from here, to be from the "second city" in a state, the way Spokane is to Seattle. And so I think it had everything to do with my ambition, my insecurity as a writer, and the way that I saw the place that I was from.
To you saying that, when you leave, you're able to see it with some kind of romanticism -- in "The Cold Millions" there are some really beautiful passages. I'm thinking of one where one of the characters is reflecting that there couldn't possibly be a better view than they had in Spokane. But at the same time, you don't shy away from bleak scenes of the town. Granted, it's in a different era. How has the honesty with which you've written about Spokane been received by the locals?
I think very well. A novelist and the chamber of commerce are looking for very different things in a place. As a novelist, you're looking for conflict and for pathos and drama, and finding it in the way miners were treated in the early 1900s. The terrible working conditions, the huge gap between the wealthy mining magnates and in the poor workers who had nothing but their bodies to carry from job to job. That is the stuff of fiction, and it's a different kind of romanticism, it's the romanticism of striving, and of wanting more. And for me growing up, I remember believing that I had almost been to Central Park because of my reading of "Catcher in the Rye." And I've always wanted to create a sort of fictional map of the place that I'm from. And so nothing gives me more pleasure than to have readers come to town and want to retrace the steps of "The Cold Millions," or find themselves at the donut shop from "Citizen Vince" — creating that fictional version is a kind of romanticism, I think.
What book would you recommend for listeners?
I think Richard Hugo's poems about Seattle are some of my favorite. I remember reading them and driving by those addresses and seeing the houses that he lived in. And that, for me, was one of those thrilling moments that I think I wanted to create in "The Cold Millions."
Also, Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
Listener, John in Renton: I recommend "The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown. The story is about eight young men at The University of Washington who train very hard and rise to the top of the rowing world and compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It really shows how hard those young men worked, what character they had, and really provides a good representation of the strength of character of Washingtonians. Being a born and raised Washingtonian, I just love that story.
Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat
Alex Rochester: It took you four years of research to write the book. As someone who didn't grow up in the area, how did you go about understanding the impact of Washington on these men and their families?
Daniel James Brown: It was a really interesting and revelatory process. I spent an enormous amount of time at Suzallo Library at the University of Washington, just reading newspapers on microfiche from the 1930s. Having come from California, I really knew very, very little about Seattle history. And quite beyond getting the facts that I needed for telling "The Boys in the Boat" story, I just wanted to sort of immerse myself in Seattle, circa mid-1930s. And the best way to do that was spend a lot of time reading newspapers, looking at everything, looking at what movies were playing in town, and what the politics were. And pretty much everything you can think of.
You paint these men is incredibly hard working. One of our listeners actually wrote in saying it was the strength of character of these men that resonated for him as a Washingtonian. Do you think this book adds a sense of romanticism to the hardworking nature of Washingtonians?
There may be a romantic element to it. I think we all like to think in romantic terms, but it was also a reality. I was really staggered, doing the research into the degree of the adversity, that not just these nine young man in this boat confronted, but that that whole generation of Washingtonians and Americans more generally faced. I mean, they really did overcome extraordinary difficulties that certainly my generation never had to overcome. So I think the the nub of it is is based very much in the reality of the character that that generation pretty much had to develop in order to survive their times.
What do you think people will recognize about Washington's role that aren't from Washington?
I think it's a really universal story about confronting adversity. And particularly, that whole fundraising effort after the Poughkeepsie Regatta, where people were selling little paper badges for 25 cents apiece on street corners. In Seattle, it was just a remarkable amount of community involvement. And they raised $5,000, largely through very, very small contributions like that. So I think one of the universal aspects of the story is this notion that when people pull together, when they come together, as a community, a great deal more is possible than they might have thought was possible.
What book would you recommend that you believe represents and describes Washington well?
I tend to read a lot of granular history, or granular natural history about wherever I am. So, for instance, David B. Williams, he writes a newsletter about the natural history of the Puget Sound area, and he just wrote a book called "Home Waters" that is the natural and human history of the Puget Sound area. BJ Cummings wrote a book — again, very granular — about the Duwamish River and its history.
Other book recommendations from listeners:
"Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson: Set on fictional island off Puget Sound that explores Japanese-American relations during the 1950s. PEN/Faulkner Award Winner. Recommended by Ezzie from White Center and Betsy in Seattle.
"The Brothers K" by David James Duncan: Set in Camas, WA, about baseball and growing up in a small working class town. Recommended by Cindy in Northgate and Meredith in Kirkland.
"What I Carry" by Jennifer Longo: Fiction about a girl about to age out of the foster care system meeting new characters on Bainbridge Island. Winner of the 2021 Washington State Book Award. It inspired one listener to move to Bainbridge Island: “I love living here and find it as magical as they describe alongside just feeling a sense of place.” Recommended by Blair on Bainbridge Island.
"On the Take" by William Chambliss: Non-fiction book on Seattle's legacy of corruption before the 1970s reforms. Recommended by Don.
"What Could Be Saved" by Greg Spatz: Short stories about rare instruments in the Seattle area, written by a local fiddler player. Recommended by Brett.
"The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin: Set in Chelan County in the earliest twentieth century about a makeshift family living off the land. Recommended by DB.
"Deep River" by Karl Marlantes: A Finnish family moves to southern Washington to establish themselves in the 19th century. Recommended by Nancy.
"Living High" by June Burn: A memoir of pioneers in the twentieth century with adventures spanning homesteading a gumdrop in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest, teaching near Siberia, and exploring the United States by donkey cart with a baby aboard. Recommended by Sophie in Olympia.
"You Can’t Eat Mt Rainier" by William Spiedel: A humorous collection of Seattle restaurants in the 1950s by the founder of Seattle's Underground Tour and the man behind the urban renewal of Pioneer Square. Recommended by Paula in Seattle.
"The North Cascades Highway: A roadside guide to America’s Elk" by Jack McCloud: A visual pit stop along the State Route 20 with geological history along the way. Recommended by Laura in Seattle.
"The Highest Tide" by Kim Lynch: A coming of age novel that follows a young nature loving boy exploring the tidal flats of Puget Sound. “It’s very specific about local areas and Puget Sound, and a very delightful book,” said listener Roberta in Sheldon.