Andrea Reads America: Oregon

Andrea Reads America map of Oregon books
Andrea Reads America: Oregon

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.

mink river by brian doyle book coverNovel: 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.

no one belongs here more than you by miranda july book coverBook: 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.

the residue years by mitchell jackson book cover(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.

wildwood by colin meloy book coverNovel: Wildwood
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.

Guest post: Shadow Mountain

Map: Oregon, setting of “Shadow Mountain” by Nancy Townsley

This is a guest post from Nancy Townsley who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Oregon. Enjoy.

I remember it like it was yesterday, especially on days when the weather is just right, when the cloud cover is minimal and the smog over Portland’s downtown core clears out after a good rain and I get a fantastic view of Mt. Hood off to my left as I drive east on Highway 30 before heading toward my newspaper office. It used to be that when I saw the mountain, I’d put my mind’s meanderings on hold for a moment or two, long enough to consider and appreciate its stark-white majestic beauty and rugged, craggy appearance. “The queen of the Cascades” is indeed a marvelous peak to behold.

But in the last two years, since Jared fell from the Crater Rock area on Hood’s south side, dropping into thin air after a snow cornice collapsed beneath him, I’ve had to work hard to resist thinking of the mountain as an 11,250-foot monster that took him from us. When his body came to rest in the White River Canyon, his FitBit Tracker was still working. Data on the device gave his grief-stricken relatives some solace because it showed he had died immediately: there were no calories burned, steps taken, or activity recorded after he plunged from the precipice.

Since that terrible day in 2012, five more climbers have succumbed to the mountain’s twin personalities — allure and treachery — each sudden death bringing all those dark emotions flooding back.

Accidents happen, but they aren’t supposed to happen to someone you love. As tempting as it is to consider the wider, more cosmic implications of such randomly occurring events, and despite the sincerely good intentions of those who insist everything happens for a reason and that a celestial someone’s in control, I’m not at all convinced that a Supreme Being was anywhere near the awful soup of circumstances that came together when Jared, Mark, Kinley, Collin, Sebastian and Robert fell from Hood on blue-sky days in February, and May, and June, and August.

I can’t believe that an all-powerful god wouldn’t have plucked my stepson from the edge. Or that an omniscient god stood idly by and allowed him to die that day and be lost to his children and his wife, his mother, his father and two siblings who still fight back tears many days, when they miss the sound of his voice or the warmth of his touch. The only “perhaps” I can entertain is that a loving Someone or Something is now holding all six men in the vast and unknowable palm of his or her or its hand somewhere beyond the veil, where pain and sorrow are no more.

Still, I weep for all their families, the same way people have for ours since two winters have changed into a pair of springs and we’ve tried to carry on, looking for ways to honor Jared’s memory even as we silently scream into the ether that more than anything, we just want him back.

So many “whys” are on our lips as we continue to think about the “what ifs” of our personal and perennial loss. What if Jared had not gone up to the mountain that night? What if the wind had been weaker, the snow less slick, the sun less strong? What if he had not removed his crampons and his helmet when he stopped to rest after taking a dozen photos on his camera, breathtaking shots of the sunrise over the crater’s rim as that Monday, February 6 dawned bright and clear in the Pacific Northwest?

We will never, ever know. Mother Nature has her ways, and they are often beyond our understanding. Recognizing that questions are always more plentiful than answers, when I ponder these things I try to remember that the jungle — and the mountain — are neutral.

A friend of mine, who also fell from a great height many years ago but survived, believes that when we die, each of us immediately begins our next great adventure. She says this with a serene look on her face and an almost imperceptible hint of anticipation. That has become my mantra and meditation. If we are lucky, we live life to its fullest, and one day, at a time we often cannot predict, we die. At that moment we are spirited away by the gentle winds of transformation to a place of peace and joy so profound it can only exist in our imaginations.

But what of the now? This morning around six o’clock, Hood was cloaked in clouds. She wore her wispy white regal robes close about her shoulders, her mysteries hidden beneath their voluminous drifting folds. And though I know she’s entitled to her stories and her secrets, I’m still mad as hell at the mountain.

Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two weekly newspapers in Washington County, Oregon, where she has won numerous journalism awards. When she’s not on deadline, she runs marathons. Her essays and stories have appeared in “Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life,” published by Forest Avenue Press; The Riveter Magazine; Role Reboot; and Bleed, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives in the river town of St. Helens with her husband Gregg, who writes western historical fiction.

Guest post: Walk in the Fog

Map: Oregon, setting of “Walk in the Fog” by Claudia Charlton

This is a guest post by Claudia Charlton who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Oregon.

Inland fog hangs heavy in Elk River canyon this morning. I wake to a blanket of gray pressed over the meadow and against the windows of the bedroom – buried in an impenetrable pudding.

Time for a walk. I don’t do walks all that much, but I love the Elk River as it courses from its rain-fed sources in the mountains of the Coastal Range, down a winding path to snarling waves of the Pacific along the southern Oregon coast. This morning the river is calm – riffling and whispering through its runs over colorful gravel beds, pausing to ponder in deep pools tinged with purple shadow. The fog appears to weigh heavy on its spirits as well.

I round the first bend from my house and a single shaft of sunlight pierces the mist to target a miracle. Three perfect spider webs, woven from threads of diamond glistening in perfect patterns, each a meticulous replica of a lace doily crafted by a grandmother who specializes in crochet with tiny hooks and delicate threads. I stop and marvel as sunlight creeps across each sparkling strand. Afternoon breezes will end their ephemeral splendor.

Rills of rain water tickle and trickle and thread themselves down slopes covered in layers of fern and moss and fallen limbs. Today they’re noisy after mountain showers. Some days they’re timid, each conserving its energy into a single tiny stream impelled to reach the surging stream at its downhill end. A contributor to a greater force.

The canyon narrows upriver. The water far below my path winds along the steep of the mountain rise – some places clear and still over shallows, more like a mirror of river water than water itself, some sections green in their depth – if green and blue streaked in purple and silver can be called just green.

The mosses are definitely green. Lime green, almost to the yellow-green of an old-time crayon box. It’s variety that stuns. Ribbons of moss drape from the foreheads of boulders, like fairy ringlets. Mats of moss, thin and feathery, blanket great rock faces, beards of giants. Sleeves of moss sheath the arms of a long dead myrtle, like those old-fashioned gloves favored by glamorous movie queens – the ones that clung from fingers to upper arm.

Sapless bones of skeletal trees stretch in twisted struggle to a sky they’ll never reach – some drenched in falls of moss, some bare and crumbling in shreds of rot, some contorted in record of their perpetual struggle to find the nourishment of light. An old growth stump feeds a start of fresh life growing from its rot. Another, equally as magnificent, stands lonely, shredding fingers of itself in long strips to deteriorate in the detritus about it, nourishing with its death new life.

The backbone of an ancient Port Orford pine stretches skyward from its crevice in the river bank far below. It rises almost to where I pause on the road above, its worn fibers faded to a gray-white that resembles the color of royal ermine. I pause to admire its tenacity, its lonely splendor.

Arms of living trees twist and reach to sunlight, each the embodiment of the spirit’s struggle to endure. Brave, determined, inventive, persistent, stubborn – and magnificent. My favorites are those specimens that cling to slopes falling steep to the river. There, where their holds are precarious in rock and crevice and slipping soil, they thrust elbows in every direction, twisting back on themselves for balance and light, warted and scarred and battered and survivors in their battles to endure. I gaze in reverence. I resolve to mimic their courage and steadiness and furious determination.

The fog lifts. Sunlight strikes maple leaves, gold and rust and amber and yellow all splattered with freckles of brown. Dew drops sparkle on patches of fern. A patch of myrtle sprouts cling to one another at their roots; decades from now those sprouts will coalesce into one mighty tree stretching and bending and seeking the light – a queen in a forest of royalty.

On the hillside opposite a great myrtle spreads – seven arms of one root ball writhe and curl to sunlight. The struggle to feed their expanse has slowed growth and at their tops leaves are sparse, only a few fading yellow flags linger to rustle in the breeze. Most have long since fallen to the mossy hummocks below.

The river gleams, reflects sunlight back into the morning.

I turn and walk toward home. Renewed.

Claudia Charlton is a retired nurse, teacher and sheep farmer currently living near Port Orford, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the online edition of Oregon Quarterly, the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor and the Posts of Oregon Humanities.