Andrea Reads America: Washington

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Washington state
Andrea Reads America: Washington

I’ve never been to Washington, but I sure do want to go now. When I read the state, I  immersed myself in a Seattle bakery, on a sailboat on Puget Sound, and in the humor of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I love fresh bread, being on boats on salt water, and laughing, so this was a pretty fantastic mix of books for me.

Bread Alone book cover Novel: Bread Alone
Author: Judith Ryan Hendricks, worked in a Seattle bakery
Setting: Seattle, WA

I first read Bread Alone several years ago when I was really into baking bread. I was excited to get to Washington on my reading project so I could read it again. Filled with scenes of coffee on wet days in Seattle, wood for stoves, and the comforting smells of fresh bread baking, it sucked me in immediately and me want to give up everything and become a baker.

Outside, the rain hasn’t stopped so much as paused, and the air is cold and scoured clean.

Bread Alone is a novel about a woman, Wynter, who is going through an unexpected divorce and who finds her way back to herself through baking bread. It’s a comforting book, and this probably won’t be the last time I read it, especially since it has recipes. It’d be a great book for fall or winter.

Just rocky, conifer-covered mountains thrusting up from the cold, blue Pacific. Air so clean it sears your throat with a sweet ocean smell.

Before the Wind Novel: Before the Wind
Author: Jim Lynch, born Seattle, lives in Olympia
Setting: Puget Sound, Washington

As a novice sailor, I was excited to finally find a novel about modern, local sailing (vs. round-the-world adventures). The main character of Before the Wind comes from a family of sailboat racers, and he lives on his boat in a marina on Puget Sound. The marina scene itself is entertaining, filled with the types of characters you’d expect who live on boats, and the types of boats you’d expect them to live on if you’ve ever spent time in small marinas on the coast.

What I really appreciated about this book was that the author doesn’t shy away from using the language of sailing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. It puts the reader inside the mind of a sailor, what they think about, what they notice, what they fear, and who they read to learn more:

The line [from Joshua Slocum] our father made us memorize was: “To know the laws that govern the winds, and to know that you know them, will give you an easy mind on your voyage round the world; otherwise you may tremble at the appearance of every cloud.”

But this book isn’t just about sailing — it’s also a great story about a dysfunctional family who raced sailboats together when the kids were kids, the sister who had a magic about her on a boat, and their attempt to reunite as a family to sail one last race.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Book: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Author: Sherman Alexie, born Spokane, WA
Setting: 1970s Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA

Set primarily on an Indian Reservation in Spokane, Washington, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a book of short stories that are both hilarious and dispiriting, and are fiction based on on Alexie’s childhood and teenage years on the Reservation.

This morning I pick up the sports page and read the headline: INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.

Go ahead and tell me none of this is supposed to hurt me very much.

There is deep love and respect and a code of living among the tribe, but the primary tone of the stories is one of sadness, loss, and a broken people. Funny and modern, the stories are wonderfully written, enough so that I wanted to keep reading despite how sad it made me feel.

“Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away,” she said. “And that hurts because I don’t know how much of a future we have.”

Alcoholism is rampant in these stories, and mixed with that is a weaving of the mundane and what Alexie called Reservation Magic when someone asked if he’d describe this book as including elements of Magical Realism. This magic is woven throughout other Native American books I’ve read as well, as if the people of the tribes walk between the worlds.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette book cover Novel: Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Author: Maria Semple, lives in Seattle
Setting: Seattle, WA (and Antarctica)

What a refreshing, funny, and smart read! Based in Seattle after an catastrophe in LA, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of a genius architect, Bernadette Fox, her unassuming (also genius) husband who works at Microsoft, and their daughter Bee who goes to school at an elite private school overseen by overachieving, overbearing, helicopter parents. Bernadette is an eccentric recluse, which the busybody power-moms from the school cannot stand about her.

What I loved about this book, aside from the fact that it made me laugh, is that it shows what can happen when a creative genius is not creating: they destroy instead. Since the book sometimes uses narration from Bee, and sometimes correspondences between characters as chapters (emails and letters, for example), it’s also a really well-done demonstration of perspective, and how one person can be seen so differently by so many people, and how dangerous that can be.

Guest post: Boris’s Bluff

Map: Washington, setting of “Boris’s Bluff” by Iris Graville

This is a guest post from Iris Graville who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Washington. “Boris’s Bluff” first appeared in Oregon Quarterly Magazine, Summer 2013 when selected for first prize in the Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest, Student Category. Enjoy.

Boris’s Bluff. You won’t find it in hiking guidebooks or on topographical maps. Guides don’t take visitors there, either; tourists wouldn’t be impressed by this rock outcropping, a twenty-minute wander from our home the two years we lived in the isolated village of Stehekin, Washington. But Boris’s Bluff awed me.

It was Boris, our tabby cat, who first led me there. It’s not so much a bluff as the alliterative name we gave it suggests, but more like an over-sized, moss-flecked pitcher’s mound. Just beyond the sloping rock, cottonwoods and pines start their ascent to the foothills and peaks surrounding it. If not for the slice of sky visible through the canopy, you could believe the world ends right there.

Stehekin, translated as “the way through,” was named by Skagit and Salish tribes migrating between the east and west sides of Washington State. My husband and I and our two kids vacationed there regularly over the course of ten years. We’d arrive on a passenger-only ferry that navigates once daily up fifty-five-mile-long Lake Chelan. Highways were blasted through a stretch of the rocky lakeshore, but none ever made it all the way to Stehekin and its cliffed shoreline. Telephone lines never got there either, and the mountains shooting up from the valley floor block cell phone transmission.

Long before our move to Stehekin, vacations there schooled us in the way of life in this village of eighty-five, fringed by North Cascades National Park. We practiced Stehekin-style grocery shopping—mail your list and blank check to the Safeway store at the other end of the lake; pick up your groceries at the boat three days later. We outwitted biting black flies and temperatures in the upper 90s by skinny-dipping in the icy Stehekin River. On a stay during a winter holiday, we woke to three feet of fresh snow, read by kerosene lamp when the hydroelectric power went down, and inched a vintage pick-up along single-lane, ice-crusted village roads.

Early on in our visits, hikes into Stehekin’s backcountry renewed my zeal for my work as a public health nurse. As the years went on, though, my fire for promoting health for the poor and underserved began to sputter; trekking the mountains no longer re-ignited me. I dreaded yet another referral for a pregnant teen, or sitting again in a cigarette-smoke-infused apartment teaching a harried mom alternatives to yelling at her toddler. I couldn’t face more refugees who had forgotten to take their tuberculosis medications, or hear once more from supervisors that we had to increase visit numbers. It all weighed on me like an overstuffed backpack, its straps digging into my shoulders and its heft pounding my lower back. I began to question if nursing, the work I had felt called to, was what I was still meant to do.

Finally, one year, instead of vacationing in Stehekin, my family and I moved there. They wanted adventure. I sought escape. Hoped for my own “way through.” That first fall and winter, I filled two journals with run-on sentences of complaint, criticism of myself and others, questioning of my values, and fear. I didn’t realize I was writing the textbook on burnout. By the time most of the snow melted, I had only questions. Had I failed? Or was I being nudged to different work?

One spring day, Boris and I again tramped to the bluff. He coiled beside me as I sat on the sun-warmed stone, his purr vibrating in the windless air. I breathed in Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Reaching a hundred feet upward, their long history preceded me. At the base of their trunks, saplings signaled new growth. Snowy peaks towered five thousand feet above, their ridges cascading in ripples of purple beyond my vision. Unexpectedly, I sensed that Boris and I weren’t alone. The cement block of worry about the sick immigrants and the struggling teen mothers lifted from my back. Tears welled as I grasped that I have my part to play, but it’s not up to me alone. On Boris’s Bluff, I embraced both my smallness and my greatness.

I don’t live in Stehekin anymore, but it lives in me. Boris died a couple years ago. I didn’t go back to the old house, or the old job. My family and I moved to a community on a rural island in Puget Sound. Here, I balance work as a school nurse with writing. I’m seeking still—not escape, but attention to God’s presence. So here, I climb the saltwater-lashed cliffs of Iceberg Point and sit among firs, their wind-twisted trunks bowed toward the ground. I imagine the Coast Salish of the past, fishing for salmon and gathering gin-scented juniper berries on that “way through” the Cascades, perhaps pausing awhile at Boris’s Bluff.

Iris Graville’s profiles and personal essays have been published in national and regional journals and magazines, and she blogs regularly from Lopez Island, Washington. Her first book, Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands, received several awards including a Nautilus Book Award. Iris is on track to graduate in August from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts low-residency MFA program where she serves as nonfiction editor for Soundings Review. Her vignette, “Boris’s Bluff,” is an excerpt from her thesis, a memoir entitled Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.