"We have nothing to fear
but sanity itself."
-Robin Williams, Mork & Mindy

In 2003 when G. Dubya announced in his State of the Union address that nation building was to be the centerpiece of foreign policy from here out, Americans, for the most part, accepted it without question. Most asked themselves what took him so long. It was nothing new, this idea. Nation building is part of the American psyche, having been engaged in it for over two hundred years, carving our own nation out of a frontier on a policy that promoted the land grab as a divine right. Nevermind that North America was pocked with tribal nations who were here first. Or that Spain claimed most of the southwest and California. If there was gold in them hills, resources to be plundered, America was entitled to them. We were building a nation.

West of Here
by Jonathan Evison
Workman Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61620-082-4
$15.95, 494 pp

The Promised Land
"An industrialist, a shaman and an explorer walk into a bar . . ." Sounds like the lead-in to a joke, but what Jonathan Evison does with those characters is no laughing matter. 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 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, the settlement 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.

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. Once reality sets in - the need for financing from outside interests - the project morphs into one controlled and staffed by Midwest corporate interests, and 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 executives in Chicago.

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 also the story of the last great expedition in the lower forty-eight. Part My Side of the Mountain, part Into Thin Air and part Here Come The Brides, 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.

    For centuries the region had fueled speculation among seafarers, and for centuries the rugged obstacles it presented discouraged even the heartiest explorer. Viewed from the strait, as Juan de Fuca allegedly viewed it in 1579, the heart of the peninsula comprised a chaos of snow-clad ranges colliding at odd angles, a bulwark of spiny ridges defending a hulking central range like the jaws of a trap . . . and all of this was wrapped tightly about the waist with an impenetrable green blanket of timber.
Teenage Wasteland
Jump to 2006. Modern 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. Single moms struggle to make ends meet against a backdrop of the greater cultural struggle of the indigenous people living on and off the rez. The main protagonists of 2006 Port Bonita are Krig - a descendent of one of the port's early settlers - and Curtis, an aimless Indian teen. The star of the 2006 narrative though, 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. You'd think the community would be up in arms over it, but instead they give it all the heed they would the village idiot contradicting himself. Port Bonitians accept its inevitability, 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 Thornburgh's descendants - the man whose vision was hijacked all those years ago by corporate interests - care about its removal.

Krig, for his part, is wising up to Port Bonita's stranglehold. Through a series of small town failures - the pursuit of a girl; trying to make a difference in a teen's life; popularity - he finally finds a way out. He stops pretending Port Bonita is enough and bails. It means turning down a better paying position at the seafood plant where he's employed, but he recognizes it for the trap it is. There's a bigger life out there than Port Bonita, and he exits the story intending to take a chance on it. No more ghosts; no more hauntings. He only relocates a hundred or so miles south, but it might as well be a continent away.

Part My Side of the Mountain, part Into Thin Air and part

Here Come The Brides, it's also a story about the land,

and in that respect West of Here belongs to the

mountains and rivers and forests . . .

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.'"

Walking Dead
In the end, West of Here is a ghost story. The residents of 2006 Port Bonita weave about 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.
Harrowing business, nation building.

The Egg and I
by Betty MacDonald
JB Lippincott, 1945
278 pp

    Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband.
                            - Shakespeare
With that anti-feminist quote, Betty MacDonald begins her tale of taming the wild frontier of Washington's majestic Olympic Peninsula. Set in the 1930's on a chicken farm the author carved out of the woods with her husband Bob, The Egg and I is a testament to self-reliance. A couple of city slickers themselves, they approached their enterprise with the daring spirit of early explorers. They were, after all, twentieth century nation builders.

Ol' MacDonald's Farm
MacDonald is a fabulous storyteller, giving personalities to inanimate objects, no doubt an attempt to assuage the loneliness of having only Bob to look at day in and day out. She writes with great detail of the wood burning stove used for cooking, cleaning, heating - you name it - complaining about its temperamental ways, but all the while conveying the impression she has a deep-seeded fondness for Stove and wouldn't be without it. Life was tough for pioneering chicken farmers. No running water, no electricity, not much of anything for company other than Bob, except for chickens, the weather and the constant present mountains which she describes beautifully upon their first encounter:

    . . . Bob and I spent the long ferry ride walking the decks and admiring the deep blue waters of Puget Sound, the cerulean sky, densely wooded dark-green islands which floated serenely here and there, and the great range of Olympic Mountains obligingly visible in all of their snowy magnificence. These Olympics have none of the soft curves and girlish plumpness of Eastern Mountains. They are goddesses, full-breasted, broad-hipped, towering and untouchable. They are also complacent in the knowledge that they look just as mountains should.
After some time, she pays a visit to her nearest neighbors, a mere four miles away. Maw and Paw Kettle are a picture of laziness. They live by the motto: A job worth doing is a job worth talking someone else into doing for you. Paw speaks with a slow, labored lisp, while Maw begins every sentence with "Key-rist!" Their farm is a chaotic mess of rusty bed springs, car parts and anything else that oxidizes under the weather. At last count they had fifteen kids, and nary a hand to help poor Paw with the chores. MacDonald describes them so vividly (and lovingly) you can't help but like the lot, lazy or not. They were a hit with MacDonald's readers, so much so they became a Hollywood franchise (the Maw and Paw Kettle films). Her other neighbors, the Hicks, though the opposite of the Kettles in tidiness, get no better treatment at the hands of the author. She describes Mr. Hicks as "a large ruddy dullard, [who] walked gingerly through life, being careful not to get dirt on anything or in any way to irritate Mrs. Hicks, whom he regarded as a cross between Mary Magdalene and the County Agent." Still, within the story MacDonald seems to really love her pioneering women friends for reasons other than mutual survival.

Ten Little Indians
If MacDonald's descriptions of her neighbors are endearing, her descriptions of the native locals are anything but. By her account Indians are filthy drunks, and she lacks any sympathy for them. Most of them, anyway. The number she doesn't mind can be counted on one hand.

    . . . when [Indians] came to call I filled up Stove's reservoir with water and after they had left I scrubbed the house from top to bottom with Lysol. Birdie Hicks the Second, Bob called me. I didn't care. Little red brothers or not, I didn't like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them. They had come a long way from Hiawatha.
Hmmmm. Chalk it up to the era in which it was written.

MacDonald assigns fictitious names to the local communities. Town (where one could shop), is the real life Victorian seaport of Port Townsend. Crossroads is actually Chimacum (why elect not to use a wonderful name like Chimacum?), and Docktown is Port Hadlock. To this day, there is a country lane not far from these places named The Egg and I Road, evidence of how big a phenomenon MacDonald's book was. In 1995 - the fiftieth anniversary of The Egg and I - I was invited by a friend to attend a reading of it at the Seattle Public Library. I went, anticipating my friend and I and maybe one or two eccentric Chicken Lady types would make up the total in attendance. To my surprise the event was packed. It was a Betty MacDonaldpalooza. All week. You just had to know where to look.

Though MacDonald opens with that regrettable quote from Shakespeare, her account of farm life is anything but anti-feminist. She served in the trenches right alongside Bob splitting shakes, falling trees, dissecting chickens, castrating pigs and whatever else needed to be done, and put it all down on paper, in her amused, satirical voice. As Maw Kettle might say, "Key-rist! You'd think they was buildin' a nashun!" And that doesn't happen sitting on your hands.

posted 10/26/16