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The best in Oregon books

The best in Oregon books

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Is it just me or did I get the hardest assignment? I drew the books slot for our series of stories on the best in Oregon arts and culture.

And while I have had a blast poring “over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” as a non-Oregonian once wrote, winnowing this puppy down has not been easy.

Originally I hoped to come up with a Top 10 list. Hopeless, utterly hopeless. Then I decided to have two lists, one for fiction and the other for nonfiction. Much better, but as you can see, the outcome is far more than just 20 books. But now that I have organized it on the basis of authors I'm closer to keeping the project from killing too many trees.

I fully expect readers to come forward with another 20 recommendations that I left on the cutting room floor. Or was not even aware of. And please note, this is largely one person’s list, although I received some solid advice from some of the top bibliophiles in the mid-valley. I welcome any and all suggestions (my contact info is at the bottom of this story).

One of the conclusions I reached along the way is that there are far more great Oregon books (and authors) than there are great Oregon movies and songs. This is nobody’s fault. Maybe it’s a function of the weather or our isolation out here on the edge of the continent. Maybe those factors encourage folks to sit down and compose a few thoughts … and others to pick them up and read them.

Now, on to some ground rules. The author has to have strong Oregon ties (we fudge this at some points because we are flexible people) and we are giving precedence to books that contain more Oregon-ness. 

Take Ken Kesey for example. Oregon guy all the way. But “Sometimes a Great Notion” is much more of an Oregon book than “Cuckoo’s Nest,” which could have taken place almost anywhere — and the real-life experience he was writing about occurred in California when he was studying at Stanford.

Then there is S.M. Stirling, the prolific science fiction writer who has set one of his series in the Willamette Valley. After "The Change," electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion and steam power no longer work. Portland is in a neo-feudal state led by a deranged history professor. Sounds great, huh! And volume three of the set is called "A Meeting at Corvallis." Please no jokes about my City Council stories. Alas, Stirling, who was born in France, is based in New Mexico.

And with scissor-wielding editors standing over me throughout the entire nerve-wracking creative process I must apologize for the fact that there aren’t any poets or playwrights, but if there had been I would have gone for Elizabeth Woody (who is just as influential for her teaching and work celebrating Native American culture) and William Stafford for poetry and E.M. Lewis for drama.

And I do have a lengthy honorable mention. In no particular order John Reed, Alvin Josephy, Jon Krakauer, Linus Pauling, Frederic Homer Balch, Walt Curtis, Floyd Skloot, Willy Vlautin, Charles Erskine Scott Wood, Susan DeFreitas, Carlton Mellick III, Samuel L. Simpson, Brian Doyle, Kathleen Dean Moore, Dorothy Morrison, William Sullivan, William Kittredge and Craig Lesley.

Please also note that the two lists below are organized in alphabetical order.

Fiction/literature

Jean Auel (born 1936): Auel’s six Earth’s Children books, which includes "The Clan of the Cave Bear," explore prehistoric Europe and required extensive research of the Ice Age. Auel, a University of Portland graduate who still lives in Portland, worked at early Oregon tech giant Tektronix before turning to novel writing.

Don Berry (1932-2001): Berry carved out quite a niche on the subject of early settlement, with the novels “Trask,” “Moontrap” and “To Build A Ship,” while also telling the crazy story of the fur-trapping days in the nonfiction book “A Majority of Scoundrels.” He also was a pioneer late in his life for just burping his stuff onto the internet for all to see.

Beverly Cleary (born in 1916): This is clearly (pun intended) a career award, rather than an honor for one book. Cleary is a giant in children’s literature, inventing characters such as Ramona Quimby, Beezus Quimby, Henry Huggins, his dog, Ribsy, and Ralph S. Mouse. Most of the stories, which began in 1950, were set in the Grant Park neighborhood of Portland where she grew up and where there are now statues of the characters. Her birthday, April 12, is celebrated as DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) Day, and there is a school in Portland named for her.

H.L. Davis (1894-1960): Davis remains the lone native Oregonian to win a Pulitzer, snaring the fiction prize for his 1935 debut “Honey in the Horn.” It’s an absorbing tale of Oregon’s homestead days. If you want to know what it feels like to drive a horse-drawn wagon through a flooded river, this is your book.

Katherine Dunn (1945-2016): Fascinating career here. Dunn’s most noted work is the 1989 novel “Geek Love,” which involves a traveling circus. But she also was known for her boxing writing, which was published in Willamette Week, the Oregonian and the New York Times. Dunn went to Tigard High School and attended Reed College.

Molly Gloss (born 1944): Gloss, a longtime teacher at Portland State, wrote the terrific 1989 novel “The Jump-Off Creek” about a widow who was a solo homesteader in Eastern Oregon around 1890. This is not your “Little House on the Prairie” experience. Setting rat traps every night. Wind blowing through the gaps in the cabin. Trees falling on your goats. And wolf bounty hunters baiting your cattle with strychnine to get their prizes.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001): As I noted above “Sometimes a Great Notion” just oozes Oregon-ness, with its stubborn, hard-living Stamper logging clan, battling nature and the local union. Subversive of Kesey to be writing in the 1960s and having his “heroes” be the family that says no to the union, the group supposedly aiming for the greater good. My favorite line? “In Oregon the clouds just go offshore to reload.”

Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018): Born in Berkeley, educated at Radcliffe and Columbia, and married in Paris, she moved permanently to Portland in 1959 when her husband Charles got a history gig at Portland State. She wrote more than 20 novels as well as stories, poems and essays. She disliked being pigeon-hold as science fiction writer. She preferred American novelist. For this list she’s an Oregon novelist.

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986): Malamud taught English at then-Oregon State College from 1949 to 1961, writing most of his well-known works in Corvallis — the novels the “The Natural” and “The Assistant” as well as the short story collection “The Magic Barrel.” He left Corvallis to teach in Vermont just as “A New Life” was coming off the presses. A wildly funny tale of an English professor trying to survive in thinly disguised Oregon State College it remains the “Great Corvallis Novel.” For decades afterward folks in town have been trying to figure out which characters were based on which real college figures.

James Stevens (1892-1971): Born in Iowa but raised in the woods of Idaho, Washington and Oregon, Stevens wrote an autobiographical novel of his lumbering days called “Big Jim Turner.” He also was one of the writers who popularized the myth of the lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. He also wrote songs and one of them, “The Frozen Logger,” was recorded by folk artists Odetta, Cisco Houston and Jimmie Rodgers.

Nonfiction

Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915): Duniway came west from Illinois in a covered wagon, lived and worked in Albany for a spell, published or serialized more than 20 books, founded a newsletter, The New Northwest, that focused on women’s rights and was a major player in the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to register to vote in Multnomah County. Her historical novel “Captain Gray's Company, or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon” was the first novel to be commercially published in Oregon and she also wrote “From the West to the West: Across the Plains to Oregon” about her trip to Oregon.” Her brother, Harvey Scott, editor of the Oregonian, strongly opposed voting rights for women. But he proved to be on the wrong side of history. In 1912 Oregon became the seventh state to pass women’s suffrage and Governor Oswald West had Duniway sign the proclamation.

Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964): Holbrook came west after early days as a logger in New England. He wrote for the Oregonian and carved out quite a niche as a popular historian, writing about lumberjacks, railroad workers, cowboys … but only rarely Indians. His book “Holy Old Mackinaw” is a hilarious and yet factual sendup of U.S. logging history and his “The Far Corner” offers a series of great tales of the Pacific Northwest. His best-of/anthology/boxed set is called "Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistlepunks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest" and remains the best title I came across in doing this story. His logging glossary at the back of “Mackinaw” is worth the purchase price all by itself (see information box). By the way, a whistlepunk is the logger who lets the yarding crew know when a log is set and ready to be moved.

Journals of Lewis & Clark: Challenging reading sometimes (it never made sense to me that editors who chose to correct F. Scott Fitzgerald’s atrocious spelling chose not do so with the Corps of Discovery) but the journals remain a classic adventure story. Dozens of primary sites still can be viewed in Oregon and throughout what was once the Oregon Country. Lots of other members of the noted explorers club (Drake, Cook and Vancouver), at least passed by here, but more came of the visit of Lewis & Clark.

Barry Lopez (1945-2020): Lopez, a long-time Oregonian who lived along the McKenzie River, died of cancer on Christmas Day. He went back and forth between fiction and nonfiction and “Vintage Lopez” is a good place to start, with representative samples of both sides of his work. My favorite memory of him came from a 2019 OPB broadcast of a Portland Literary Arts talk. He read from “Horizon,” his final book, and his voice — both orally and on the page — was just mesmerizing.

Kenny Moore (born 1943): When I was growing up I wanted to BE Kenny Moore. A two-time Olympic marathon participant, his main gig was writing about track and field for Sports Illustrated, but he also wrote “Bill Bowerman and the Men of Oregon,” a classic sports book about the legendary University of Oregon track and field and cross country coach. It features Oregon legends Steve Prefontaine and Phil Knight, with Bowerman’s role in the fitness boom adding another layer. Perhaps the best Oregon sports book. David Halberstam’s tale of the post-1977-title Trail Blazers, “The Breaks of the Game,” also is excellent, but Halberstam was not an Oregonian.

Lewis A. McArthur (1883-1951): This guy was perhaps the ultimate Oregonian. One grandfather participated in an early survey of the Pacific Coast. The others served in the U.S. House and Senate. His father was on the Oregon Supreme Court. His mother organized the Oregon Historical Society. Lewis, a geography whiz, published the first edition of “Oregon Geographic Names” in 1928.  And then it grew and grew. His son picked up the torch for later editions, which weigh about five pounds. If you want to know who was the first postmaster of your town or when it was platted, McArthur is your guy. Please note that he has found 11 bodies of water in Oregon called Fish Lake, although he is partial to the one in eastern Linn County because of its history.

Chuck Pahluniak: Yes, I know, Pahluniak wrote “Fight Club,” but wherever I went, metaphorically, in this quest I kept hearing that his idiosyncratic take on his home town “Fugitives and Refugees: a Walk in Portland, Oregon” is even better. And contains even more Oregon-ness.

Cheryl Strayed (born 1968): A transplanted midwesterner, Strayed changed the face of West Coast hiking when she published “Wild,” her tale of life on the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail is far more crowded than ever before and there are limits on access. The book was a great hiking story, but it also was a great personal story of Strayed’s effort to overcome personal demons and the loss of her mother. When she spoke in Corvallis in 2015 1,900 people showed up to hear her speak. It was an emotional evening, not so much as a function of her talk, which was fine, but because of the way women in the audience responded. Whatever pain — and redemption — Strayed felt in her life and on her hike also was keenly felt by her audience

Frances Fuller Victor (1826-1902): Both a historian and a novelist, Fuller (that’s the name she preferred) grew up in New York, homesteaded in Nebraska, came to Oregon in 1964. And began writing. One of her best is “The River of the West: The Adventures of Joe Meek.” Meek (1810-1875) was one of Oregon’s great characters, a fur trapper and mountain men as well as a key figure in the political infighting that determined whether Oregon would wind up American or British. Fuller’s writing became her sole source of income after her seafaring husband died in a steamship wreck. She wrote for Duniway’s magazine, she was commissioned by renowned California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft to write a 5-volume history of Oregon and other Western states. To help make ends meet she sold face cream and other items door-to-door.

The political trio: Yes, this is a three-author entry. Sorry. Wanted to inject some modern politics into the mix so I am offering the Tom McCall bio “Fire at Eden’s Gate,” by Brent Walth, “Wayne Morse, a Political Biography by Mason Drukman and “A Man for All Seasons,” the story of Monroe Sweetland by William G. Robbins. Sweetland (1910-2006) was a vastly influential figure in Oregon politics. He was involved in left-wing labor activities in the 1930s and 1940s, helped revive the Democratic Party in Oregon from his post as national committee chair, served in the state Legislature and worked for the National Education Association on issues such as bilingual education and voting rights for 18-year-olds. The story is well told by Robbins, a retired history professor at Oregon State University.

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@lee.net or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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