The Northwest, where I live and where my novel is set, is a big place and it’s a lot of things. It is the damp, mossy woods of the coast, the high desert, and the snow-capped, jagged mountain ranges that separate the two. It is home to weird and real creatures like giant octopuses, as well as giant earthworms. There are a disturbing number of volcanoes. Its history is, like so many places, steeped in violence, oppression and theft. There’s a lot to do for any author looking to write about their past in fictional form. How do you merge the weird with the awful with the beautiful (because the Northwest is nothing if not beautiful) in a way that’s not only readable but enjoyable?
I didn’t realize I had written a western until I learned that my novel was going to be marketed as such. In the five years I have spent working on fire season, I have always called it historical fiction. To me, the western genre was something different – stories of cowboys on horseback, smoking cigarettes and shooting guns. fire season has no cowboys. There is a horse, briefly mentioned. There are a few cigarettes, but no guns. But, because it’s a novel that takes place in a certain time: The Past. And a certain place: the West. Well, then it’s a western. I came to enjoy the label. I like to call the story one feminist westerna urban westa magic western. I like the surprise and the idea that people buy the book assuming it’s about tough men on the shooting range with their guns and instead they get a woman facing the future in a city, armed only with his considerable intelligence.
Here are eight westerns…just kidding! Here are eight historical fiction novels set in the Northwest that do just that:
Washington: Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
It was Fowler’s first novel – the book that launched an unprecedented career of cheerful weirdness. I mean, really, is there anything Fowler can’t do? Science fiction, magic realism, ordinary realism, historical fiction, damn it!
Set in the 1870s in the harsh and strange country of Washington Territory, Sarah Duckit follows the adventures of a woman of the same name who travels the landscape alone and unwashed, capturing the attention of various men. But Sarah doesn’t want men. Sarah wants to do her fucking thing. And so she does, without excuse or explanation (in fact, Sarah never speaks at all). Is she magic? Is she mad? Is it a figment of everyone’s imagination? Who knows! But she’s awesome and that’s all that matters.
Oregon: Whiskey when we’re dry by John Larison
Where does the first part of John Larison’s painfully sad, bloody and redemptive novel take place? No idea. Somewhere in the middle, I guess. Or the Western environment, perhaps? But the rest is set in 1885 Oregon, mostly on the property of the Governor’s Mansion where the protagonist has reinvented herself as a mercenary after her father’s death. Posing as a man, 17-year-old Jessilyn secures a spot on the governor’s private security team and witnesses the many abuses of power that shape not just her workplace, but the entire region. It’s no wonder Jess quickly retires, choosing instead a life of crime alongside her outlaw brother. As readers, we 100% applaud this decision, proving that we are all old-fashioned Western anarchists at heart.
Seattle, Washington: Love prizes and other consolation prizes by Jamie Ford
This sweet and inventive novel begins with a horrifying premise based on a real event: an orphan named Ernest is auctioned off as a novelty at the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. In reality, Ernest was a baby when he was sold and his fate is unknown.
In Ford’s account, he is about a twelve-year-old boy who recently traveled to Seattle alone from China. He is bought by a Madame in a posh brothel where he has to work as a house boy, and where he ends up forming a found family as loving as it is unexpected. The novel jumps between times as an adult Ernest in 1962 (the year of another Seattle World’s Fair) first tries to hide his past from his investigative reporter daughter, then let her into it. a way that makes sense to both.
Spokane, Washington: The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
No one writes about my Spokane home with as much precision, or as much joy, as Jess Walter. Walter is the author of seven novels, most of which are set in or around Spokane. The city is a setting, but also a kind of character – an inscrutable entity, both comical and downtrodden, but ultimately lovable, much like Walter’s human characters. The Spokane of The Cold Millions is no exception.
The book chronicles the free speech protests of 1909, with a pair of wandering brothers-turned-union activists as heroes. It’s a story of great deeds and great personalities, all of which collide in a city as restless as the people who have occupied it. It’s the kind of writing that can make someone want to visit Spokane, even if they’ve already been there.
Spokane, Washington: Cassandra by Sharma Shields
Another from Spokane! My buddy Sharma Shields has the distinction of being both a dark and tortured genius, and also the genuinely nicest person you will ever meet.
In his second novel, Shields sets his sights on the poisonous Washington state elephant in the room: the Hanford nuclear site, which was built as part of the Manhattan Project and was instrumental in the development bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The protagonist of this poignant story is a young woman who accepts a job as a secretary at Hanford during World War II and soon finds herself beset by prophetic visions of the damage her colleagues’ work will unleash. This book is both a retelling of a modern-day myth and an exploration of the cost our society pays for ignoring those brave enough to sound crucial alarms, especially when the alarmists are women.
Seattle, Washington: No-no boy by John Okada
No-no boy follows a discouraged youngster named Ichiro Yamada who has just returned home to Seattle after spending the last two years of World War II in federal prison for the “crime” of answering no, and again no, to loyalty questions posed to the Japanese American men in internment camps.
Generally, historical fiction is any story written at least 50 years after the time it takes place. But Okada wrote this piercing and insightful novel just a decade after the war ended, at a time when most Americans were unwilling to acknowledge the horrors of the camps or the challenges faced by those returning home. The book held a mirror that most didn’t want to look into, and as a result was frazzled and then forgotten. Then, in 1976, it was reissued to great critical acclaim. Today, it is considered an essential classic of Asian American literature. But sadly, Okada died in 1971 and never saw his book get the attention it deserved.
Vancouver, Canada: five little indians by Michelle Bon
Set primarily in the early 1970s, this novel follows five Aboriginal teenagers who have been released or escaped from a remote Canadian boarding school. The characters valiantly try to build a new life in the big city of Vancouver as they struggle to come to terms with the abuse they suffered as children. The subject matter is blunt and direct – Good doesn’t poke fun at what life was like for generations of children stolen from their families. But an undercurrent of compassion and humor also runs through the story, making it, ultimately, a story of hope.
This book is an elegantly crafted reminder that while its characters may be fictional, its story is not. This is such a recent story that it really isn’t a story at all, but rather a continuing narrative as the survivors of these institutions and their families fight for justice and visibility. .