I grew up in the gorgeous Wenatchee Valley of Washington State, and just returned from a visit there for my 50th high school reunion. In spite of the growth it has experienced since my parents moved there in the mid-40’s, it is still gorgeous to me–lush orchards backed by high dryland plateaus and the foothills of the Cascades, with a wide blue ribbon of the Columbia winding through it. To grow up in a small town during the 50’s and 60’s felt safe and magical–how lucky I was! Whenever I visit, it makes me long for “home”, and here are some stories that remind me of my hometown.
When I read this story in high school, it made a deep impression on me, and when I read it again as an adult it felt as fresh and new as it had the first time. It is one of my very, very favorite classics. Anderson published this novel in 1919, and it is considered his greatest work. Young George Willard, the somewhat omniscient narrator, is a reporter for the small town newspaper of Winesburg. He explores the lives of its citizens in a series of “sketches” that illuminate their inner lives and struggles to fit in–into small town life and into themselves. Small towns have a way of both judging and enfolding, strengthening and weakening, but ultimately help us come to know ourselves in ways city life cannot. I obviously love small towns, and recognized so many character types that I knew growing up, in this universal tale of individual lives woven together.
A River Lost, the Life and Death of the Columbia, by Blaine Harden
When I recently heard this author speak, I was so impressed that I bought the book immediately and read it in two sittings. Harden has a finely-honed journalistic gift: being compassionate toward both sides of controversial issues. In this case, it is the pro-environmentalist- salmon-lovers and tribes, vs. farmers and businesses who need water for irrigation and cheap energy from the many dams on the Columbia. Even though I grew up on the river, there were so many things I did not know about it until I read this book, particularly how much barge traffic the river handles, and how dumping more water over the spillways at particular times of the year is bringing back the salmon fisheries. A very worthy read for anyone from the Northwest.
This biography of the ever-eccentric, energetic publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World (now the Wenatchee World) was one of the Northwest’s most influential men. His tireless promotion of Wenatchee and the Grand Coulee Dam had its supporters and detractors, and no one seemed to be in the middle! I was only five when he died, yet our family was closely intertwined with the Woods'; our family “grew up” with the family of Rufus’ cousin, Warren, who also worked for the paper. It is still owned by the Woods family, and grandson Rufus is now the publisher. The story was fascinating to me because it not only examined the life of someone who cast a giant shadow in our valley, but because the politics and logistics of building the dam showcased federal policy and history in ways that are still being felt today. I loved reading more about a most unusual and memorable man, and more history about “my hometown.”
Hometown, by Tracy Kidder
I will at least try anything Kidder writes, and have loved almost all of them. This is one I did not know until recently, and in true Kidder style he burrows into his subject (this one, the small town of Northampton, Massachusetts) and examines it in engrossing detail. Most of the complex drama of life in this small town (population 12,000) is examined through the eyes of Tommy O’Conner, a town cop. But there are other characters equally complex: a single mother given a chance to attend prestigious Smith College, an executive with mental illness, and several others. What emerges is an unflinching yet tender portrait. While this may not be Kidder’s strongest book, even his runners-up are better than most authors’ first place offerings.
Sonneman and Steigmeyer lived the migrant life of fruit pickers in the 1970’s, traveling from Florida to Washington State to follow the harvest. They lived within loose family groups of mostly Okie (former Oklahoman) migrants, trying to organize an advocacy group, which ultimately fell apart. Much of the text and photographs were written about Washington’s harvests, a topic well-known by most of us who grew up or live in the Wenatchee Valley. Steigmeyer’s photographs are intimate and fascinating, capturing more of the grace and grit than the hardships of migrant life. They remind me of much of striking 1930’s WPA photographs. Sonneman’s text is gracious and rich in detail about a way of life that has all but disappeared, as more migrant families stay put in one area. This is a book I have owned for years, was a Western States Book Award winner in 1992, and I would not part with it for anything!
East of the Mountains, by David Guterson
This is unlike most of my recommendations in that I loved most of the book, except for the ending, which seemed not a reliable fit with the rest of the story. So if you can ignore that, here is a painting that captures the Wenatchee Valley, where I grew up, perfectly. Guterson describes the feel of the orchards, the harvest, weather, and the people so tactilely. His story follows the fate of Ben Givens, a widower and retired surgeon, as he grapples with his terminal cancer. He keeps living life, engaging with people around him and those whose paths cross his, and they represent a rich and varied group–a migrant worker, a drifter, a young couple, and a sage veterinarian, to name a few. He hunts where my own Dad used to hunt, and captures the Palisades, south of Wenatchee, so well I could practically smell my Dad’s hunting jacket, pockets stuffed with Chukkers we would later have stewed for dinner.