West of HereBook - 2011
At the foot of the Elwha River, the muddy outpost of Port Bonita is about to boom, fueled by a ragtag band of dizzyingly disparate men and women unified only in their visions of a more prosperous future. A failed accountant by the name of Ethan Thornburgh has just arrived in Port Bonita to reclaim the woman he loves and start a family. Ethan's obsession with a brighter future impels the damming of the mighty Elwha to harness its power and put Port Bonita on the map.
More than a century later, his great-great grandson, a middle manager at a failing fish- packing plant, is destined to oversee the undoing of that vision, as the great Thornburgh dam is marked for demolition, having blocked the very lifeline that could have sustained the town. West of Here is a grand and playful odyssey, a multilayered saga of destiny and greed, adventure and passion, that chronicles the life of one small town, turning America's history into myth, and myth into a nation's shared experience.
From the critics
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Evison has a gift for storytelling. He patiently forms his characters 'til they jump right off the pages and stick to you like the mud and grit of the frontier his story is set in. He reveals the history of Port Bonita in WEST OF HERE, a fictional settlement based on the very real city of Port Angeles, Washington.
Port Bonita is a dirty backwater teeming with possibility. A collection of shacks, the settlement has all the politics of a modern city. It's got impoverished tribal members languishing at Hollywood Beach, existing in limbo between their old ways and the new. As a nation, the Indians are divided between "savages" and a Christianized enclave led by Lord Jim who purchased their own land, only to find that by this act of self-determination, they forfeited their right to federal recognition. There are idealists in Port Bonita too, a boatload of them living communally in an artist colony called the Commonwealth.
Spurned by the woman he loves, Ethan Thornburgh follows her west to the Colony, where there's a lot of planning, painting and dreaming going on. Thornburgh fancies himself an idea man, always on the lookout for the big opportunity that will make his name. A bit of an idealist himself, he pursues his dream of bringing the electric light to Port Bonita by damming the Elwha River. The idealist in him sees in the project the promise of local jobs and commerce. For a moment he's a hero, before losing control of the project to Midwest corporate interests. Just as the Indians were failed by America's expansion west, Port Bonita is failed by corporate America's. The wealth Thornburgh promised Port Bonita is summarily siphoned off to line the pockets of faceless executives in Chicago.
In the end, WEST OF HERE is a ghost story. The modern-day residents of Port Bonita weave about life's challenges as if in a dream. Their ghosts, centuries old, created long before the story begins, walk the land, as they are part of the land. The challenge for the residents of Port Bonita is how to rid themselves of the haunting, or if it's even possible. As Lord Jim stated on the eve of his death: "We are born haunted . . . We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. "
Evison has a gift when it comes to storytelling. He bends and molds his characters 'til they jump right off the pages and stick to you like the mud and grit of the frontier his story is set in. He paints with masterful strokes in WEST OF HERE (Workman Publishing, $15.95), the history of Port Bonita, a fictional settlement based on the very real history of Port Angeles, Washington.
Set on the eve of statehood, Port Bonita is a dirty backwater teeming with possibility. Hardly more than a collection of shacks, Port Bonita has all the politics of a modern city. It's got impoverished Indians lingering at Hollywood Beach, existing in limbo between their old ways and the Great White Father's new. As a nation, the Indians are divided between the "savages" and a Christianized enclave led by Lord Jim who purchased their own land, only to find that by this act of self-determination, forfeited their right to federal recognition. There are idealists in Port Bonita too, a whole boatload of them living communally in an artists colony called the Commonwealth, an unlikely springboard for commercial industry, yet that is precisely where the town's first industrialist launches from.
With a cast of thousands, it's difficult to pinpoint precisely whose story WEST OF HERE is. It's the story of clashing cultures. It's the story of the last great expedition in the lower forty-eight. it's also a story about the land, and in that respect WEST OF HERE belongs to the mountains and rivers and forests of the Olympic Peninsula.
Really two stories in one, Evison writes about Port Bonita as a frontier backwater, then jumps to Port Bonita as a modern twenty-first century city. It offers a sharp comparison, which sadly points up the successes and failures of its residents.
Present-day Port Bonita is an economically depressed mill town dotted with retail chains. Its pioneering spirit has been replaced with corporate lethargy; its pioneers with teen huffers, puffers, and parolees. The star of the modern narrative is the dammed Elwha River. In an effort to correct mistakes of the past, the river is to be reclaimed for fish habitat which means removal of the dam. Port Bonitians accept it unblinking, not because they're all a bunch of raving environmentalists, but because they've grown accustomed to feeling powerless. Powerless and haunted by Port Bonita's past. Not even Ethan Thornburgh's descendants - the man whose vision it was to dam the river in the first place - care about its removal.
Although the stories take place over a century apart, their common threads - the dam, the forked tongues of federal and corporate agents - make this not two stories, but one and the same story. As if to drive the point home, Evison throws in a time-traveling autistic Indian boy from the 1890s named Thomas who is regarded by some of the Indians as a shaman, reviled by others. A mute, upon traveling to 2006 where he sees the world through the eyes of Curtis, finds his voice and shares what he's learned. "I have seen the many worlds," he said. "And they are here . . . There is no there," said [Thomas]. "All paths lead here."
In the end, WEST OF HERE is a ghost story. The residents of 2006 Port Bonita weave through life's challenges as if in a dream. Their ghosts are centuries old, created long before the story begins. They walk the land, as they are part of the land. The challenge for each Port Bonitian is how to rid themselves of such a haunting, or if it's even possible. As Lord Jim eloquently put it on the eve of his death in October 1890:
"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."
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We are born haunted . . . We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. "
-Lord Jim, WEST OF HERE, by Jonathan Evison
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