7 Historical Novels Set in the Pacific Northwest
Leyna Krow, author of "Fire Season," recommends stories that take place in Washington, Oregon, and Canada
The Northwest, where I live and where my novel is set, is a big place and it is a lot of things. It is the damp, mossy woods of the coast, the high desert, and the snowy, jagged mountain ranges that divide the two. It is home to weird and real creatures like giant octopuses, and also giant earthworms. There are an unsettling number of volcanoes. Its history is, like so many places, soaked in violence, oppression, and theft. There’s a lot to contend with for any author looking to write its past as fiction. How to meld the strange with the awful with the beautiful (because the Northwest is nothing if not beautiful) in a way that is not only readable but enjoyable?
I did not realize I had written a Western until I learned my novel was going to be marketed as such. In the five years I spent working on Fire Season, I always just called it historical fiction. To me, the genre of Western was something different—stories of cowboys riding horses and smoking cigarettes and shooting guns. Fire Season has no cowboys. There is one horse, briefly mentioned. There are some cigarettes, though no firearms. But, because it is a novel set in a certain time: The Past. And a certain place: The West. Well, then a Western it is. I have come to enjoy the label. I like calling the story a feminist Western, an urban Western, a magical Western. I like the surprise of it, and the thought of people buying the book assuming it is about rugged men on the range with their guns and instead getting a future-seeing woman in a city, armed only with her considerable wits.
Here are eight Westerns… kidding! Here are eight novels of historical fiction set in the Northwest that do just that:
Washington: Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
This was Fowler’s first novel—the book that launched an unparalleled career of joyful weirdness. I mean, really, is there anything Fowler can’t do? Sci-fi, magical realism, regular realism, historical fiction, damn!
Set in the 1870s in the rough and strange land of Washington Territory, Sarah Canary follows the adventures of a woman by the same name who traipses the landscape alone and unwashed, captivating the attention of various men. But Sarah doesn’t want men. Sarah wants to do her own fucking thing. And so she does, without apology or explanation (in fact, Sarah never talks at all). Is she magic? Is she insane? Is she a figment of everyone’s imagination? Who knows! But she is 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 achingly sad, bloody, redemptive novel take place? No clue. Somewhere in the middle, I assume. Or the West-ish middle, maybe? But the rest takes place in Oregon, in 1885, mostly on the property of the governor’s mansion where the protagonist has reinvented herself as a hired gun after the death of her father. Posing as a man, 17-year-old Jessilyn secures a place on the governor’s private security team and becomes witness to the many abuses of power that shape not just her place of employment but the entire region. It is no wonder Jess quickly opts out, choosing a life of crime at the side of her outlaw brother instead. As readers, we 100% applaud this decision, proving we are all old-timey Western anarchists at heart.
Seattle, Washington: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
This sweet and inventive novel begins with a horrifying premise based on a true event: an orphan named Ernest is auctioned off as an item of novelty at the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. In reality, Ernest was an infant at the time he was sold, and his fate is unknown.
In Ford’s retelling, he is a twelve-year-old who had recently traveled alone to Seattle from China. He is bought by a Madame at a high-end brothel where he is to work as a houseboy, and where he ends up forming a found family as loving as it is unexpected. The novel jumps between time as adult Ernest in 1962 (the year of another Seattle World’s Fair) tries first to conceal his past from his investigative journalist daughter, then to let her into it in a way that makes sense to both of them.
Spokane, Washington: The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Nobody writes about my home of Spokane with as much precision, or as much glee, as Jess Walter. Walter is the author of seven novels, most of which take place in or around Spokane. The city is a setting, but also kind of a character—an inscrutable entity, simultaneously comic and downtrodden, but ultimately lovable, just 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 drifter brothers turned labor activists as its heroes. It’s a story of big action and big personalities, all colliding in a city as rough and tumble as the people who occupied it. It’s the kind of writing that can make a person want to visit Spokane, even if they’re already there.
Spokane, Washington: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields
Another one from Spokane! My buddy Sharma Shields has the unique distinction of being both a dark and tortured genius, and also the genuinely nicest person you will ever meet.
In her second novel, Shields sets her sights on Washington State’s toxic elephant in the room: the Hanford nuclear site, which was built as part of the Manhattan Project, and instrumental in developing the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The protagonist of this harrowing story is a young woman who takes a job as a secretary at Hanford during World War II, and soon finds herself beset by prophetic visions of the damage that her colleagues’ work will unleash. This book is both a retelling of a myth for modern times and also an exploration of the cost our society pays for ignoring those who are brave enough to sound crucial alarms, particularly when the alarm-sounders are women.
Seattle, Washington: No-No Boy by John Okada
No-No Boy follows a despondent youth named Ichiro Yamada who has just returned home to Seattle after spending the last two years of World War II in a federal prison for the “crime” of answering no, and no again, to loyalty questions posed to Japanese American men in internment camps.
Typically, historical fiction is any story that is written at least 50 years after the time it is set. But Okada wrote this piercing and insightful novel just a decade after the war’s end, at a time when most Americans were unwilling to acknowledge the horrors of the camps, or the challenges facing those returning home. The book held up a mirror most were unwilling to look into, and as a result, was panned and then forgotten. Then, in 1976, it was reissued to great critical success. Today it is considered an essential classic of Asian American literature. But sadly Okada had passed away in 1971 and never saw his book garner the attention it deserved.
Vancouver, Canada: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good
Set primarily in the early 1970s, this novel follows five Native teens who have been released, or have escaped, from a remote Canadian residential school. The characters gamely try to build new lives for themselves in the big city of Vancouver as they struggle to contend with the abuses they suffered as kids. The subject matter is brutal and direct—Good does not pull punches about what life was like for the generations of children stolen from their families. But a stream of compassion and humor runs through the story as well, making it, ultimately, one of hope.
This book is an elegantly crafted reminder that, though its characters may be fictional, its story is not. This is a history so recent it is really no history at all, but instead an ongoing narrative as survivors of these institutions and their families fight for justice and visibility.