Peter Donahue of Winthrop, Washington, is not only a novelist, he’s a literary historian. From 2005 to 2018, Donahue researched and wrote 55 columns on early authors of the Pacific Northwest. These “Retrospective Reviews” were published by Columbia Magazine, a quarterly publication of the Washington State Historical Society.
The bulk of the columns have been brought together and published in the new paperback “Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers.”
The book’s evocative title derives from the late Nard Jones’ brash declaration of identity in the middle of the last century. Born in Washington state, Jones spent nearly a decade of his youth in Oregon, then worked as a news correspondent in Walla Walla, Washington, and later as an editorial writer in Seattle.
“I remain unregenerate, a Salmon Eater, an Apple Knocker, a Rain Worshipper, a Sagebrusher, and a Whistle Punk from the Big Woods. In brief, a Pacific Northwesterner,” he declared.
Jones was also a prolific writer of fiction. Over his career he saw a dozen of his novels published, along with hundreds of short stories. Jones wrote in exacting detail about wheat farmers and steamboat pilots, loggers and old-style gumshoes. He painted vivid word-pictures of the Columbia River before it was dammed and the city of Seattle before it had the Space Needle.
And yet — how many people are aware of Jones’ impressive legacy today?
This is where Donahue comes in — refreshing the memory of vintage works of Northwest literature. Not all of them are high-brow, but they are nonetheless potent conveyors of earlier times and manners, and industries that gradually ceded to other ways of life.
In these pieces, Donahue focuses exclusively on works that have gone out of print. For every author Donahue profiles, he supplies a substantial passage from one of their works. And despite the fact that these story fragments are at least half a century old, they vibrate with pent-up energy.
We’re drawn back into a world where suffragists fight for women’s rights. Fire lookouts scan the horizon for smoke. Orchardists and wheat growers fret about their crops. Lightship crew members hanker for shore leave while tending to their repetitive chores on a ship that remains anchored just off the coast.
Lest we think we are the first generation to consider the diversity of the society we live in, Donahue can point you to the empathetic works of Patricia Campbell, Christine Quintasket (Mourning Dove), and Alan Hart, who was a medical researcher-turned-novelist and a transgender male.
Even Zola Ross, known for her historical romances, did not whitewash realities such as the region’s racist mobs who forcefully expelled Chinese residents.
Labor issues, industrialization, encroaching development — all of these were dealt with by earlier generations of writers and consumed by earlier generations of readers.
Now offered as a compilation, these essays reveal a sameness of format that probably wasn’t obvious when read as originally intended. That’s a minor quibble easily dealt with — take your time in reading them.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.