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Reading the Region 

Is there such a thing as a literature of the Inland Northwest?

click to enlarge AMY SINISTERRA
  • Amy Sinisterra

If there were such a thing as a school of Inland Northwest writing, what would it be? The South has lyric, langorous prose to recommend it: the language of Faulkner and Welty. Montana has its share of grizzled, outdoorsy writers: Rick Bass, Ivan Doig, William Kittredge. But what is the mark of an Inland Northwest book?

"I think if you asked someone in New York, or a Plains Indian for that matter, about what constitutes the literature of this region, they'd probably say Sherman Alexie," says Jack Nisbet, regional nonfiction writer and author of Purple Flat Top. "He writes of this area in a really organic way. He writes without apology about the way life is on the reservations."

As we browsed through a large stack of novels set in the region, some similarities began to appear. First, there's the natural world. It's nearly impossible to set a book in the Inland Northwest and not talk about the thunder and spray of the Spokane River, the basalt cliffs to the southwest, the thick pine forests to the north and the undulating sea of Palouse wheat to the south.

Second, there's the weirdness factor. Just as you'd expect from a place that spawned David Lynch (the director of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive grew up in Spokane and Sandpoint), these are not always stories about the pretty, happy side Spokane would like to present. Bad things go on in nice houses. People drink too much. Violence simmers quietly under the surface of so-called normal life.

Third, Inland Northwest writing is often funny. Most of the books we looked at employed a deft handling of humor. Maybe it's the aridity of the climate, perhaps it's simply that you have to develop a sick sense of humor just to live here, but we appreciate the sometimes dry, sometimes compassionate irreverence to be found in many an Inland Northwest novel.

Finally, resilience. There's something subtly gritty about stories set here. Spokane is not the place you set a breezy comedy of manners (Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City), nor is it the place where your characters are likely to experience anything glamorous. The Inland Northwest, it seems, is where you plant your story if you want your people to struggle a little, to deal with poverty, memories of childhood abuse, alienation and racism. These are stories of survival, of making the best of a bad situation, of finding solace in friends, nature or even basketball.

The following list is by no means comprehensive (that would literally take up an entire issue or two), but we think it provides a good start for an Inland Northwest Book Club.

WORKS OF FICTION

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie

Plot Summary: The title sums up the nature of this book in more ways than one. Twenty-two linked short stories relate life on the Spokane Indian Reservation in darkly hopeful vignettes. Alexie's prose hits like a swift upper cut, but there's the undeniable warmth and sweat of the clinch there as well. Many of the short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto were adapted into Alexie's first screenplay and film, Smoke Signals. His directorial debut The Business of Fancydancing, taken from his book of the same name, plays at The Met this week.

Regional Ties: Grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit * Mother a Spokane Indian, father a Coeur d'Alene * Graduated from Reardan High School * Attended Gonzaga University and Washington State University * Fainted three times in anatomy class at WSU and decided to pursue writing instead of pre-med * Now lives in Seattle with wife, Diane, and two sons.

His Inland Northwest: Alexie's Inland Northwest is a crazy quilt of dusty back roads, HUD housing, reservation bars and basketball courts. His characters are often checked by poverty and anger, circumstance and tragedy, but Alexie leavens their struggles with the comforting aromas of frybread, the whirling colors of the powwow and the salvation of humor.

Salt Dancers, by Ursula Hegi

Plot Summary: After being away for 23 years, Julia, 41 years old, unmarried and pregnant, returns to her native Spokane. Wanting to sort out her past before the arrival of her baby, Julia delves into the mysteries of her own youth, particularly her troubled relationship with her abusive father.

Regional Ties: Hegi moved from Vermont to the Inland Northwest to take a teaching position at EWU in the early 1980s * Lived in several houses on the lower South Hill before settling into a small neighborhood on the north bank of the Spokane River * Her new home, several hours north of New York City, she says, is also near a river.

Her Inland Northwest: If Hegi ever wrote a literary love letter to Spokane, this is it. She maps Spokane with an insider's specificity, moving her characters from long talks at Lindaman's to solitary rambles around Cannon Hill and Manito parks. But underneath the surface of charming locales and local hangouts is a disturbing sense of the hidden: abuse, betrayal and woundedness. A woman at a reading once told Hegi, "You write about things that most of us don't dare look at" — a sentiment Hegi has gladly claimed as her own.

Over Tumbled Graves, by Jess Walter

Plot Summary: Walter's fiction debut, Over Tumbled Graves, follows the course set by a serial killer known only to police officials as the Southbank Strangler. Detective Caroline Mabry, a thirtyish cop trying to live down her first shooting in the line of duty, joins forces with her colleague Alan Dupree, only to find their search for the killer beset by departmental politics and the "serial killer industry." Walter wrote the book while the Spokane serial killer case was more or less dormant; he finished it two weeks before Robert L. Yates was caught.

Regional Ties: Started writing for The Spokesman-Review in the early 1990s while also a creative writing student at EWU * His award-winning coverage of the siege at Ruby Ridge and subsequent Randy Weaver trial led to the publication of his first book, Every Knee Shall Bow. * Has been known to call Spokane his own "Bedford Falls."

His Inland Northwest: In Over Tumbled Graves, Spokane is a great place for what Walter calls the "banality of evil" to take up residence. He accurately captures the Lilac City as both cheery family town and seamy, economically depressed backwater. "Everyone dragged around heavy suitcases filled with excuses for staying in Spokane," he writes, and yet there's a sort of bleak optimism as well. Cops joke inappropriately at crime scenes, funny things happen at inopportune moments and love percolates under a veneer of tough cop 'tude.

Buffalo Coat, by Carol Ryrie Brink

Plot Summary: A young woman falls in love with a much older, married physician in the tiny frontier town of Opportunity (Moscow), Idaho. But that's only one of the story lines in this extravagantly plotted 1944 novel. The book was bestseller in its day but went out of print for years before being rescued by WSU Press, which rereleased it in 1993.

Regional Ties: Brink graduated from the University of Idaho in 1917 * Her grandmother, the inspiration for the 1936 Newbery Award winning Caddie Woodlawn, is buried in Moscow, along with most of Brink's family * Brink set many of her novels in Moscow but almost always changed its name.

Her Inland Northwest: Brink's at her best when describing the terrain of the Palouse, painting the roll of the hillsides, the slightly disturbing proximity of the mountains and the sense of limitless possibility. Brink's Inland Northwest is also surprisingly unromantic: although she recognizes the beauty of the landscape, she also reveals the violence, loneliness and harshness of life on the frontier.

Moody Gets the Blues, by Steve Oliver

Plot Summary: Three months out of a psychiatric hospital, Vietnam vet Scott Moody takes a job driving cab in Spokane in the late 1970s. A hallucination involving Humphrey Bogart convinces him to take up private investigator work; his first gig involves an ex-girlfriend.

Regional Ties: Worked at the Spokesman-Review before leaving to work at Microsoft in Seattle * Opened and ran Dark City Books for about a year and a half * Still lives in Spokane

His Inland Northwest: Moody inhabits a Spokane that consists of bad apartments, desolate 4 am streets riddled with potholes and off-kilter characters walking around in sincerely ugly 1970s fashions. Although Oliver has often said that he's not out to write literary novels, his dry sense of humor contributes to some particularly deft turns of phrase.

Curtain Creek Farm, by Nance Van Winckel

Plot Summary: The living history of Eastern Washington's fictional Curtain Creek Farm unfolds through the interrelated stories of eight of the women who live there. Van Winckel's characters are anarchists, runaways, hair stylists and agriculturists. Like Alexie, Walter and Oliver, her sense of humor is something to savor, perhaps even more so for its gentleness and subtlety.

Regional Ties: Teaches creative writing at EWU * Lives in Spokane with her husband, artist Rik Nelson * Van Winckel has herself never lived on a commune.

Her Inland Northwest: The world of Curtain Creek Farm bears no small resemblance to Tolstoy Farms, and in Van Winckel's hands it emerges as a tangible, memorable place. The mundane and the transcendent meet here, where folks get "back to the land," and find themselves up to their elbows in hard work, rough winters and flash floods. Along the way, however, there are chickens that live in abandoned cars, forests that offer willow bark for paper and potato plants that yield tiny, perfect potato eggs.

Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

Plot Summary: In spite of the fact that his high school doesn't even have a swimming pool, T.J. endeavors to start a swim team by recruiting the school's misfits. The self-described black-white-Japanese youth knows what it's like to feel like an outsider, living as a person of color "in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio show." Crutcher's trenchant wit and strong dialogue make this young adult novel fun for grownups, too.

Regional Ties: Many of Crutcher's earlier novels, including Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, are also set in Spokane * Crutcher has lived in Spokane for several decades and continues to work with troubled kids as a counselor in private practice.

His Inland Northwest: Crutcher's view of Spokane is pretty close to the mark: nice houses sometimes hide an awful lot of family dysfunction, and sports — particularly Hoopfest — are deservedly a big deal (Crutcher's characters often find an outlet in athletics).

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Plot Summary: Two young girls, Ruth and Lucille, grow up under the eccentric care of their grandmother, their two great aunts and their dead mother's transient sister. Set in the fictional town of Fingerbone on the shores of a vast glacial lake, Housekeeping speaks of both the hunger for domestic life and the siren call of the wild. A 1987 film adaptation of the novel, starring Christine Lahti and directed by Bill Forsyth, was filmed in Sandpoint.

Regional Ties: Robinson, now living in Iowa, was raised in Sandpoint * She grew up hearing stories about her uncle's death by drowning in Lake Pend Oreille * Housekeeping was selected by The Idaho Statesman as its "What if Everybody Read the Same Book?" selection in 2001.

Her Inland Northwest: Robinson remembers Idaho's three glacial lakes — Priest, Pend Oreille and Coeur d'Alene — as beautiful but deadly. In the novel, the girls lose their grandfather to Lake Pend Oreille in a spectacular train mishap; their mother drives into the lake soon thereafter. She combines details from all three to envision her fictional Idaho lake, where her young characters struggle with loneliness, isolation and, above all, a desire to belong.

The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, by Janet Campbell Hale

Plot Summary: Cecelia Capture wakes up the morning after her 30th birthday in a holding tank in the Berkeley jail. She regards her life through a series of flashbacks, from her childhood on an Idaho reservation to her lonely marriage to a white liberal professor, finding comfort in the fact that her Indian heritage has helped her endure rough times.

Regional Ties: Hale is a Coeur d'Alene tribal member and lives in Coeur d'Alene now * The story of her childhood is related in her memoir, Bloodlines.

Her Inland Northwest: In The Jailing of Cecilia Capture, the Inland Northwest is the geographical representation of everything that has both held Cecilia's life back and given it meaning. In spite of poverty, alcoholism and strife, Cecilia eventually adopts the quality most valued by her people: "Courage has been bred into you. It's in your blood."

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

Plot Summary: Hammett set several short stories in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, but never a full-length novel. Spokane does make an appearance in The Maltese Falcon, as the setting for the "Flitcraft Story" Sam Spade tells in Chapter 7. A Tacoma man who mysteriously disappears one day after nearly being killed by a falling beam, Flitcraft seems to have the perfect life: a wife and family, a successful job and even a brand new Packard. When Spade finally tracks Flitcraft down, the man has moved to Spokane under the influence of an existential crisis, only to have built much the same life as he had in Tacoma.

Regional Ties: A detective with the famous Pinkerton Agency, Hammett was stationed in Spokane in 1920-21 * His stay here was bookended by bouts with tuberculosis, for which he received treatment in Tacoma (where he met his future wife, Jose Dolan).

His Inland Northwest: How ironic for someone to flee to Spokane, only to find themselves in the same rut they just left? As Spade relates the story in the Maltese Falcon, he says the irony is his favorite part: "But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Did we miss anyone? Let us know about your favorite set-in-the-Inland Northwest books so we can include them in a follow-up. Send to [email protected]


"On the West side of the state you have rain, tall trees, mountains, skyscrapers. Everything is vertical, Space Needle-like. Writers can only think inward, as if they're standing in a closet. Over here, though, it's horizon, horizon, horizon. Here there is a landscape for the introspection to happen. A writer finds himself small in an immense landscape. This I think tends to lead to a sense of wonder, absurdity and surrealism that you don't find in most of the fiction coming out of Seattle and Portland. The surrealism comes from putting something inward into a landscape of grand scale.

"In the Inland Northwest we have the same big-city problems of Seattle and Portland — poverty, crime, abuse, etc. But also we have an idea of ourselves as a small, friendly town without those problems. Heck, we don't even think we need a North/South freeway, to fill the potholes, or clean up the river. As a result, our big-city problems are more apparent as we go about our friendly small-town ways. In Portland and Seattle, those problems tend to get buried under a booming economy and thriving middle class. I think people here act the same way as they do over there, except our efforts look more transparent or strange because the problems are showing a lot more. We are kind of like a guy who shows up at a party with his stained underwear on the outside of his jeans. He can act just like everyone else, be just as cool, try to act as if he's normal, but obviously no one will care. They'll be too busy looking at his problem.

"I think that's why in our fiction and poetry you often see a character in a hard-luck situation with a booming feel of optimism. That's why you also see a lot of stories of supposed "normal" life infused with a sense of strangeness, as if bad things are just under the surface. You'll see this in an Alexie story, or Raymond Carver, or in the work of David Lynch."

— Scott Poole, editor, EWU Press and author of The Cheap Seats

"For me, a lot of Inland Northwest literature has to do with writings about and by tribal people. You could begin with Mourning Dove, whose Salish culture and sense of place defined her work. She is generally acknowledged as the first Native American to publish a novel, and her work leads naturally to writers like Janet Campbell Hale of the Coeur d'Alene. If you think of our region as that of the Plateau culture, covering all the Columbia drainage east of the Cascades, you find similar examples up into B.C., down into northeastern Oregon, and across the line into Western Montana. We [Spokane] just happen to be right in the middle of it.

"This larger region is so vast and unexplored in an artistic sense that there's room for everyone. You can talk about Sherman Alexie, or Bill Kittredge, or Raymond Carver, or the host of women writers who are working here now, and they are all struggling to make the Inland Northwest emerge as a vibrant, distinctive place."

— Jack Nisbet, naturalist and author of Purple Flat Top

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