Nancy Danielson Mendenhall has written a handful of nonfiction books that center on life in challenging environments where she has been — from eastern Washington to the north Pacific.
Her first novel, “Storytellers at the Columbia River” draws from the displacement of different communities along the Columbia River. The stories reflect how these communities grapple with the trauma of losing their homes.
The story is rooted in personal experience. Mendenhall’s grandfather was a settler in the small community of White Bluffs. In 1943, he was evicted. His farm was destroyed when the federal government condemned the entire town to make way for the Hanford nuclear plant — and its top-secret Manhattan Project, which would bring an end to World War II.
Just a year earlier, Japanese-American farmers a few miles downriver had been uprooted and incarcerated behind barbed wire.
A different story of displacement belongs to the Wanapum Indians, who lived along the middle of the Columbia River for countless generations. Because they did not participate when the U.S. government forced tribes to sign treaties in the mid-1800s, the Wanapum were left with no federally recognized land rights. For the next century, they simply remained at remote sites along the river and carried on with their traditional lifestyle. That came to a halt in 1953 when the federal government built the Priest Rapids Dam on their ancestral lands, flooding the riverbanks where they had always lived.
Mendenhall intertwines all of these stories when five newcomers sign up for the 1998 Settlers’ Reunion, an annual event held by the folks who had been booted off of their farms by the Hanford project.
Among the newcomers is an enigmatic Siberian shaman who has come to call for the river’s healing. Two are descendants of the displaced farmers, attending on behalf of their elders, who have sent them with specific requests to fulfill. And two others are anthropologists, committed to recording the stories being shared by the old-timers.
All of these folks end up on a tour bus out to the old White Bluffs site, usually off-limits to the public, but specifically opened up for this group. The bus driver is a Wanapum man, who has stories of his own to share.
The title is forewarning: “Storytellers at the Columbia River” is a very talky book. Also, there is one complicated midnight escapade that requires considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.
But through it all, Mendenhall makes important connections between very different points of view. There are ruminations about commodities and committees, energy, environment, education, activism and government.
Is this book overlong? Perhaps so. But that may be fitting, given the vast capacity of the river itself.