Monthly Archives: May 2018

Westerns in 2018


I just recently finished two Westerns by Oregon authors that are outstanding.

Preamble: On the north and central Oregon coast many geographical names have native origins and there is a similar sound to them, Nehalem, Neahkahnie, Nestucca. Then oddly around the town of Tillamook there is a river named Trask, which doesn’t roll off the tongue like any other place name in that region. A couple summers ago I called out the clunky name to Andy as we drove over the Trask to get to Bayocean spit. But I didn’t think of it again until I saw the book Trask sitting on a shelf at Powells this summer.

Trask was written by Don Berry, a graduate of Reed College and whose cohort included beat poets and a beloved professor, Lloyd Reynolds, who is revered in local Portland lore.

Trask was Berry’s first novel and it was published in 1960 when he was just 28. It is a historical story of real-life trapper/explorer/homesteader Elbridge Trask. And Trask, I discovered, was one of the first white homesteaders on Tillamook Bay.

This book is an action-filled story that was meticulously researched by Berry. And Berry’s detailed work combined with his mad talent and love of Oregon resulted in a book that is considered by critics to be one of the best novels set in Oregon. The other novel cited in the same breath as Trask is Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey.

The story centers on Trask’s on-foot journey from Fort Clatsop in the early 1840s, near present day Seaside, Oregon, to meet with the Killamook natives. We learn in the first chapters that Trask has grown restless on the settled north coast and wants to see Murderer’s Harbor for himself. (Nowadays Murderer’s Harbor is less threateningly called, Tillamook Bay). And if Trask is lucky and happens to survive the overland journey, he plans to ask the Killamooks for permission to settle there. Trask sets out on this folly with two friendly Clatsop natives as his guides. And not unexpectedly the group endures bad weather, battles rugged landscapes, and gets spooked by occasional sightings of the unknown Killamooks, who are likely tracking their progress through the shadow-laden forest floor.

Present day Tillamook Bay – no longer Murderer’s Harbor.

Originally Lewis and Clark spelled the tribe’s name as Killamuck, but throughout the book Berry writes the name as Killamook, as it was sometimes used in the 19th century. In present time the name of the tribe has been altered to Tillamook.

I was bewitched by this novel and got caught up in the trek to Murderer’s Harbor with Berry’s spot-on descriptions of rain, forests, and the exhausting effort needed to climb wind-whipped headlands.

Read this book when you want an adrenaline charge and your mind’s eye to fill with a dark forested place steeped in spooked-out grey mist. Trask is an honored novel with a well-deserved reputation.

The second Western I read is The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond. It is Raymond’s first novel and was published in 2004. The book is only half of a Western because it is built around two separate narratives set 160 years apart –on the same ground.

The first story line takes place in 1820s Oregon Territory and begins by introducing Cookie Figowitz, a hapless cook working for a trapping party, who finds a naked stranger in the woods. Cookie immediately hides naked man away from the rest of the trappers. It seems the trappers are lost, and they are growing restless and angry over the dwindling food supplies as they wander day after day looking for the trading post. Cookie rightly fears for his and the stranger’s safety.

Over time the two men become fast friends. Henry, the naked man, complements Cookie’s personality. Where Cookie is shy, soft-spoken, and fearful, Henry is bold and has traveled the world, tussled with it, and is -when we first meet him in all his naked glory—hiding from Russian trappers who want to kill him.

Cookie and Henry concoct a plan to set off on a risky venture to China. There Cookie and Henry hope to sell castoreum, a beaver musk the two believe the Chinese marketplace will consume. Cookie and Henry move forward with the plan despite knowing strict Chinese law forbids common sailors from engaging in any type of trade with their citizens. High adventure ensues.

The second narrative begins 160 years later. Teenagers Tina and Trixie wander the same ground in Oregon where Cookie and Henry first met but now that ground is a disorganized tree-hugger commune comprised of cabins in random stages of disrepair and mustiness. Trixie has been banished to the commune after getting in trouble in California and is living with a family friend. Tina’s mother is out of work and plans to get it together while staying at the commune before starting  her career again. Tina’s more subdued personality and Trixie’s flamboyant and creative personality meld well, they complement one another. A friendship is born.

As time passes and their friendship deepens, Tina and Trixie create a detailed plan to make a movie. Then, during the surprisingly successful beginnings of their film project, two skeletons are found on the commune’s ground. And once again in this novel, high adventure ensures.

You probably know a little about the author, Jon Raymond. Raymond is one of those guys…he’s deeply talented and productive, so his name pops up frequently. He published a short-story collection Livability after The Half Life. And then he co-wrote two films from the collection, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. He also wrote the screenplays for Meeks’s Cutoff and Night Moves. He wrote the HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce. He is an editor for Plazm magazine ( ). He grew up in Portland and lives here still.

If you have had exposure to any of Raymond’s work, you’ll know it is neither bright nor gooey. Raymond is at his best when he creates stories that emerge from breakdowns and extreme change. His stories often contain a juncture where we are likely to lose sight of the story’s  most vulnerable characters. And when he brings his readers to witness breaking points and loss, he is able to elicit a powerful empathy in us. Read Half-Life.


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Sad ones

Sad Ones

David Patrick Moynihan said, “To be Irish is to know that in the end, the world will break your heart”.  I suggest that for a man of Irish roots, Moynihan is a bit of an optimist. Seems the world begins vigorously passing around its buckets of sorrow a little earlier than “the end”.

I don’t know if our karass (see Vonnegut for karass detail) needs any more sad stories, but I am confident a wise person would murmur something about how sorrow and sadness is essential for a life’s journey. I’ll reluctantly agree with this notion today, but no guarantees on how I’ll feel about it tomorrow.

Here are two well-crafted and sad books I recently read. Both deal in the random visitations of sorrow and loss, brutalizing characters with tender hearts and precious few resources.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa is a tale told by a cat. Okay, so animal narrative voices are often cheesy and gimmicky. But this one works. Maybe because this story is told simply and with a hint of cat crankiness in a voice so true it’s as if Arikawa has a second skill, cat channeling.

The heart of the story is this, Nana, a homeless tomcat, is rescued by a sweet soul named Satoru, who lives in Tokyo on his own. Once Nana and Satoru come to terms that they need one another (Nana is injured when the two first meet), the young man and cat live together for many years in contented domesticity. Then abruptly one day Satoru tells Nana they will be taking a journey together because as Satoru informs, “we can’t live together any more”.

Nana is dismayed he is not given a reason why but settles in to the road trip with his resilient cat heart.

rom the movie, Satoru and Nana on the road.

The story progresses with visits to three friends of Satoru’s who offer potential future homes for Nana. The pair discuss the options together when they are off alone, but of course not one meets the standard of Nana’s current home with a precious shared history and mutual devotion. Their road trip crisscrosses Japan in autumn. Nana takes detailed note of the light and colors and finds joy in the adventure as he develops a deeper understanding of Satoru’s past and his gentle ways.

“How could I ever leave him?” wonders Nana as his inherent cat stoicism begins to fail.

There are insights into Japanese culture and traditions throughout the story and little else has fed my desire to visit Japan than this book. But more importantly, I was amazed at how this simple tale was able to convey the universal experience of true friendship and what we will do for those we come to love –cats and humans alike.

Read this book and be prepared to call for Kleenex but don’t forget to count your lucky stars if you have had a similar life connection. This book was recently made into a movie, but I am not sure if we will see it in the US. Clips are on-line.

The title of the memoir Heartberries by Terese Marie Mailhot gave me the visual creeps but after hearing the author interviewed on radio, I knew I had to read it. But before we get there I want to talk about the movie, Wind River.

Wind River was released in 2017. It’s a modern western procedural set in cold cold Wyoming. Briefly the story is about a federal wildlife officer, a tracker, who works on the Wind River Indian Reservation. On a winter’s day the tracker finds a body of a young native women in the mountain snow. She is dead of course in the awful cold and her skull is beat in and she has been raped. She is found barefoot and the tracker sees her footprints and blood for miles. He takes time to acknowledge her warrior spirit before acting by bringing in additional help. It’s a good movie, violent certainly, but does a fine job telling a story about people we don’t hear much about in present time. I also learned something when the makers ran a note at the end of the movie. For Native American woman, the note informed, there are no statistics kept on the missing even though for every other demographic group this is standard. Consider that and the message it conveys to Native woman.

From Wind River, the tracker visits a father in mourning

Heartberries is a young Native woman’s story of her past which was replete with trauma and abuse. I bought this book because when I heard Mailhot interviewed on public radio her words stuck with me. She said this about forgiveness in that interview, “in white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go.” But, Mailhot went on to explain, in her culture people carry pain and reconcile with it through ceremony which means, “pain is never framed like a problem with a solution.”  This book is Mailhot’s ceremonial reconciliation of her life’s journey.

Mailhot’s life was horrible, she was neglected, sexually abused, and married young only to escape into another awful family situation. She herself was horrible, she admits that in this book, sparing no kind words for herself.

Part of Heartberries was written in a mental hospital where Mailhot was recovering from a breakdown. Her writing is lyrical throughout this slim book, maybe too much so, but it may have been the only way to dull the retelling of her vicious life. Even with her lyrical writing, this book was hard for me to face each night. But her story deserves to be heard.

The author of Heartberies, Terese Marie Mailhot

Mailhot’s book does not look for solutions to changing the long arc of abuse and neglect of Native American women but it does move the discussion further into the light. I hope we hear more from her.

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