Finally, the Pacific Northwest! I’ve only been to Portland in the Pacific Northwest, and it is enough to let me know that I want more: I want more Oregon, and I want to visit Washington state and northern California. I want to see and smell the lush green of a temperate rainforest, the massive, ancient trees, and the wild sea. I’m pretty sure our son would love the Pacific Northwest. He loves trees and gloomy grey rainy days that encourage lounging around inside all day reading books.
Of all the books I read for Oregon, Mink River by Brian Doyle captured its atmosphere best. I almost didn’t read it because I had already read three books from Oregon and was ready to move on, but the crow on the cover made me think it might give me what I was really looking for: a book where the setting is as much a character as the humans. And it delivered on that.
Novel: Mink River
Author: Brian Doyle, former editor of the University of Portland’s magazine
Setting: fictitious coastal village of Neawanaka, OR
Mink River is rich with rain, mud, cedars, ferns, a crow that talks and a bear that carries broken-bodied patients, old friends, young friends, families who are kind to one another, families who hurt each other, healers, families of Native American ancestry, families of Irish ancestry, a boisterous old logger, a wood-carver, a pub owner, a fisherman, a doctor who lives by the sea, a gentle police officer who loves opera…
The beauty in this book is in these people and the landscape. It tells the stories of a community by creating a form that is itself communal: some chapters are told in particular characters’ voices in their own time and place, while others will include a single sentence for each character, sharing what everyone in the village is doing at the exact same moment. The landscape is always present: the rainy season; the smells of the mud, the sea, the forest, the pub; the conjuring of trees and birds by merely mentioning their names – spruce, hemlock, cedar and crow, cormorant, heron.
Oh, hell, I’ll get you some big old cedar. There’s something special in an old cedar. It’s seen an awful lotta life. It’s a smart old thing and the smart stays in the tree.
There is subtle magic like you read in Irish or Native American lore, and Doyle brings the feeling of community to life by sharing stories separately, bringing them together, separating them, and joining them again. It’s a heart-warming book that’s both sharp and tender, and it was the Oregon I was looking for.
Book: No One Belongs Here More Than You
Author: Miranda July, moved to Portland, OR after college
Setting: Portland, OR
I first heard a Miranda July short story on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. David Sedaris, my favorite humor writer, read July’s “Roy Spivey.” The story was funny and unusual and made me want to read more of her work.
July lived in Portland for a while, and No One Belongs Here More Than You is a collection of short stories, many of which are set there. The stories don’t paint a visual picture of Portland — what it looks like, what the air smells or feels like — but the characters are indicative of what I have experienced of Portland in that they are not mainstream U.S.A. There’s a feeling of inclusion and progressiveness in Portland: nearly every restaurant I’ve been to there includes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options; gender-neutral restrooms are common; bicycle lines are as wide as car lanes.
Portland feels accepting to me, and July’s quirky characters feel right for Portland, like Maria who gives lessons to elderly adults who want to learn how to swim. They don’t have a pool, though, so she teaches them by providing bowls of water to put their faces in as they lay on the floor, learning to breathe to the side, then adding the arms and the legs to glide across the brown linoleum floor.
I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was busy every moment… I was talking constantly, like an aerobics instructor, and I blew the whistle in exact intervals, marking off the sides of the pool. They would spin around in unison and go the other way.
That’s the kind of stories July tells, and I love them.
(Autobiographical) Novel: The Residue Years
Author: Mitchell S. Jackson
Setting: 1990s neglected neighborhood in Portland, OR
This was a wake-up book to read after lauding Portland for being inclusive. As a white person who loves the city of Portland, who considers it progressive and filled with good food and people who care about community and the environment, I assumed inclusion of non-whites was part of the idyllic package. Mitchell S. Jackson, who “grew up black in a neglected neighborhood in America’s whitest city, Portland, Oregon,” shows a different side of Portland.
The Residue Years is the story of a black family, specifically the interwoven story of its two narrators: Grace, the crack addict mother who’s trying to recover after her fall from corporate America to ramshackle crack houses, and her son Champ, who is in college and trying to make a better life for his mom and brothers while also selling drugs to be able to afford that life.
At times I struggled because the author seemed to be trying too hard — I was aware of his writing because out-of-place fancy words would show up in Champ’s sections without being woven in naturally, and that was distracting. At the same time, the language was also fresh and alive, with a modern rhythm that has stuck with me. I also despised Champ’s womanizing and misogyny. I got my hopes up at one point because he called himself out on his abuse of women, but he disappointed me by blaming it on his mother instead of owning it and trying to change it.
Until the final quarter of the book, I wasn’t really into it. But in those final pages, Jackson pulls threads together to show the sad, vicious cycle of addiction, how addict parents affect their children’s’ lives, how prejudice and bias feed that cycle, and how everything, sadly, comes full circle in the end.
Author: Colin Meloy
Setting: Portland, OR
Written by the singer and songwriter for Portland-based band The Decemberists, Wildwood is set in a magical forest across the river from Portland, Oregon. The book begins with Prue and her baby brother Mac on a day out together. When they’re at the playground, he is carried off across the river by crows. Wildwood is Prue’s quest to find Mac and bring him back home.
The Wildwood is a wood of talking animals — of uniformed coyote soldiers, golden eagles who transport small children, and rabbits who wear colanders for helmets. I had the same feeling with Meloy as I had with Jackson — that he often tries to show off fancy words — but the setting of Wildwood is beautiful. Meloy creates a hidden world in a forest in the Pacific Northwest, with underground warrens, peaceful farming villages, and a wonderful cast of animal characters.
It is a fun read and would be appropriate for 8-10 year old readers. It’s long for that age, but I think that’s probably the level of the story and characters.