Book Review: West of Here by Jonathan Evison

I’m quite a fan of the really big, American novels. Lonesome Dove, Gone With the Wind, North and South, you get the idea, so West of Here by Jonathan Evison is right up my street. I don’t know why, but I find Americans fascinating, particular those early pioneers who set out to tame the wilderness and the desperate search for land at all costs and this book perfectly captures that spirit in the fictional town of Port Bonita. But not only does Jonathan Evison craft a town on the rise during the 1890s, he also looks at Port Bonita in the 2000s, when those early glory days are far behind and the descendants of his original characters are living their lives very differently to their forebears.

In the 19th Century, Native Americans and whites co-exist uncomfortably in what will become Washington State when young Chicagoan Ethan Thornburgh arrives in Port Bonita and has the idea of building a Hydro-electric Dam. At the same time Explorer Jim Mather embarks on an expedition to follow the Elwha river through the interior of the Olympic Peninsula to better establish a trading route. Both these men encounter difficulties and tragedies on their journeys, surrounded by a full cast of plucky townsfolk including a big-hearted prostitute, an unmarried and pregnant woman who is determined to write important stories for the local paper, crooked bar owner selling spirits to the Native Americans and a mysterious Indian boy who listens but never speaks.

Fast forward to 2006 when the Thornburgh Dam is at the end of its life and about to be demolished. Port Bonita is past its best and those living there have to be plucky in their own way to live their day to day lives. Ethan Thornburgh’s descendants rub shoulders with a former High School sports hero turned Bigfoot enthusiast, a recently released convict who just can’t mix with people and his parole officer who is determined that he’ll keep him honest.

Initially I did find the style of this book disconcerting, as it flicks back and forth between 1890 and 2006 but it didn’t take long to get used to it and the fully fleshed out characters do make this book, ultimately, a rewarding read. There are many layers to the novel which combines gentle comedy, environmental concern, terrible tragedy and real heroism and although there are very broad issues in the book they are addressed in an accessible way by looking at the individuals and their reactions to the environment. West of Here is a thoroughly enjoyable, but sometimes challenging read and what makes it memorable is this brilliant cast of characters and their personal and sometimes very public troubles are told with great affection and depth.

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