Ninety miles north of Seattle on the Washington coast lies Bellingham Bay, where a rough settlement founded in the 1850s would become the town of Whatcom. Here, the Lummi and Nooksack Indian people fish and farm, hermits pay their debts in sockeye salmon, and miners track gold-bearing streams.Here, too, is the intimate, murderous tale of three men. Clare Fishburn believes that greatness lies in store for him. John Ireland Sharp, an educated orphan, abandons hope when he sees socialists expel the Chinese workers from the region. Beal Obenchain, who lives in a cedar stump, threatens Clare Fishburn's life. A killer lashes a Chinese worker to a wharf piling at low tide. Settlers pour in to catch the boom the railroads bring. People give birth, drown, burn, inherit rich legacies, and commit expensive larcenies. All this takes place a hundred years ago, when these vital, ruddy men and women were "the living."
First, I love the atmospherics in the book. Her description of Western Washington in the 1850's, when the book begins are right on, and give a great period flavor. The dark, dripping forest, the damp days, make the setting feel almost primeval.
Unfortunately, I'm less fond of the plot--particularly at the end of the book, when it sort of degenerates into a big whodunit. Who cares.
I liked this book but you have to take the good with the bad.
On the downside, the book is at time gruesome and depressing - life was hard for these people, and Dillard doesn't spare us any of the grief or gore. Sometimes I didn't really understand the characters and their feelings. The plot line doesn't really follow a conflict-resolution trajectory: it is just a continuing saga of a few generations of Puget Sound's first settlers, and as such the plot wasn't very satisfying. Closer to real life, perhaps, but there was never a sense of resolution. Dillard's writing is very rewarding.
“Here, in all the world, there shone only his own light - his red burning tobacco, and the glowing dottle beneath it, and the black unburnt bits above. There was no other light, human or inhuman, up or down the beach, or out on the invisible islands, or back in the woods, or anywhere on earth or in heaven, except the chill and fantastical sheen on the sea, whose cause was unfathomable. Before him extended the visible universe: an unstable, thick darkness almost met the silver line of the sea. A long crack had opened between the thick darkness and the water. The crack, half the apparent height of a man, gave out upon a thin darkness, black without substance or stars. He looked out upon the thin darkness, and seemed to hear the woulds of the dead whir and slip on its deep fastness. They wanted back. Their bodies in the graveyard on the cliff could not see to steer their sleeping course, their sleeping heels in the air.”
There are a couple of down sides to this book. One is that it’s pretty grim throughout - that may be the reality of those times, but it made it occasionally hard to keep reading. Also, there’s no story arc: The path of the novel is quite flat. I think she did that deliberately so that the emphasis would be on the place (a strong character itself) and the collective lives of the people, rather than any specific story. For me, that kept it from being as engaging as I would have liked.