What is meant when a novel is called "big"? Does it mean ambitious? Broad in scope? Thickly populated? Hefty as a doorstop? At 480 pages, WEST OF HERE is all of these things, and wryly funny to boot. We begin briefly in 2006 with a thirty-something man named Krig working his high school ring off his finger and throwing it deep into Lake Thornburgh, the body of water created by a century-old dam on the Elwha River in northwest Washington State.
Then we go way back to 1890 to meet the dreamer who first envisioned that dam. Ethan Thornburgh, with his "waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing," arrives out west chasing the free-spirited (and pregnant) Eva, but soon becomes even more committed to taming the wild river and bringing progress to the nascent town of Port Bonita. His beloved Eva is devoted to equality and socialism, and has come here to throw her lot in with a colony of like-minded people in two straight rows of careful, practical homes, just over the rise from the hodgepodge of saloon, post office and boardwalk that passes for the town of Port Bonita. Similarly, there are two groups of Native Americans, living apart: the remnants of the Siwash Klallam tribe, living on in tents and lean-tos on Hollywood Beach, "said to be drunk and unreliable for the most part," and the Klallam at Jamestown, whose leader had the foresight to buy their land outright and to prohibit alcohol.
Author Jonathan Evison gets us hooked in the 1890s storylines, then switches back to 2006 to introduce another cast of characters, several of whom are great-great grandsons of men we've met, including the Krig of the first scene. The boundary between challenging and wearying the reader with so many plotlines and people is a tightrope, one that Evison dares with much success. Space precludes a synopsis of all the contemporary characters, but Krig, our faded jock from the first scene, with his "boundary issues" and his passion for Sasquatch research, is a touchpoint for all the confusion and sadness of the washed-up town that is the legacy of the dam built in the 1890s. Who knew that the dam that brought hydroelectric power and progress to Port Bonita would also be the death knell for salmon? Who knew that the trees that seemed to stretch out forever were indeed finite? (Actually, some knew --- Eva wrote a newspaper story expressing just such doubts, but the powers that were --- the monied interests that flowed into the dam --- stifled it.)
Evison is especially compelling when describing the inner states of his most compromised characters. "He did not know if he was inside of his head or outside in the world. He did not know whether he was talking or thinking. He did not know whether he was deciding what happened next or whether what happened next was deciding him." He even lays the groundwork for a wee bit of time travel. From Bigfoot to pit bulls, from stunning wilderness to skanky bars, from dead ends to new beginnings, WEST OF HERE is a long and wild ride that asks more questions than it answers.
I think we can safely call it a big novel.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on March 28, 2011
West of Here