A river defines a city like nothing else. Think of London and the Thames, Paris and the Seine, New York and the Hudson. Spokane, of course, has the Spokane River, which is getting its due in the form of a biography of sorts, titled, appropriately enough, “The Spokane River.” The compendium of 28 essays and other literary contributions tells the story of the waterway from its geologic origins in the Ice Age to contemporary efforts to rehabilitate the river.
The book is the brainchild of Paul Lindholdt, a professor at Eastern Washington University who said he has been inspired by the river since moving to the region in the 1990s and now enjoys kayaking on it. “Everybody’s loved the river – they’ve grown to appreciate and revere it,” he said. “This book was long overdue.”
Lindholdt will appear July 11 at The Spokesman- Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club, along with several of the book’s contributors, including poet Tod Marshall, Spokane tribal attorney Margo Hill, reporter Becky Kramer and Robert Bartlett, an avid fly fisherman who teaches sociology at EWU.
“The Spokane River” offers a little something for everyone, including indigenous legends of the river’s past, a humorous essay by author Jess Walter and expert accounts of cultural and natural history. All proceeds from the book benefit Spokane Riverkeeper, which advocates for ongoing efforts to protect the river and its tributaries, especially Hangman (Latah) Creek.
The book is organized into three sections, beginning with the most literary contributions. Marshall, the state’s former poet laureate, opens the book with a meditation on Spokane, the history of the river and nudity, playfully challenging readers to experience the cool water au naturel. Others offer highly personal accounts of fishing, canoeing, swimming and rafting the river, which stretches 111 miles from Lake Coeur d’Alene to its mouth at the Columbia River.
The central section, covering the river’s human history, offers nearly mythic accounts of 60-pound “June hogs,” giant chinook salmon that were routinely harvested from the river before 1911 when construction of a concrete dam at Little Falls effectively ended the run and consigned once-flourishing native tribes to hunger and poverty. Journalist Beatrice Lackaff tells the story of “People’s Park,” a hippie camp that sprung up in 1974 at the confluence of the Spokane and Hangman Creek, the same spot where indigenous people had been gathering for 8,000 years.
The book’s third and final section is dedicated to environmental issues with essays exploring the ongoing impact on the river of climate change and pollution along with prescriptions for managing the river’s transition from industrial waterway into a shared space for human recreation and wildlife habitat.
Lindholdt says response to the book has been encouraging, citing the enthusiasm of contributors, coverage in local media and initial sales at outlets including local Costco stores, where the book shares shelf space with the more typical literary and mass-market bestsellers. “I want to raise consciousness above all about the river and about environmental issues in the larger sense.”
He also said he is encouraged both by the river’s natural ability to replenish itself and the growing array of state and local regulations protecting the river and its watershed.
“The love for the river that I’ve witnessed in the last two decades has translated into greater care for the river and solicitude of the river,” he said. “The very presence of the Riverkeeper program is partly the evidence for that, but also state and federal legislation that has made the river a far better habitat. But there’s still a lot of work to do.”
AN ARTIST AND HER UNICORN BOOKS: Cartoonist Dana Simpson, whose “Phoebe and Her Unicorn” strip is syndicated in more than 100 newspapers, has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest – and a strong following here. Born in Pullman, Simpson was raised in Gig Harbor and got her cartooning start as a student, first at Evergreen State College and then as a graduate student at Washington State University, where she contributed cartoons to the Daily Evergreen.
“Phoebe and Her Unicorn” has been collected in a series of seven books, including this year’s “Unicorn of Many Hats.” Simpson will appear July 13 at Auntie’s Bookstore.
WHAT THE NORTHWEST IS READING: “The Hidden Life of Trees” has touched a nerve – or is it a root? – in the Pacific Northwest, where it consistently hits the best-seller list published by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. The book, by German forester Peter Wohlleben, explains how trees communicate with each other in a complex social network. On the fiction side of the list, readers are snapping up the paperback version of “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz, an ingenious murder mystery cleverly wrapped inside a riddle.
BRACING FOR A LONG, HOT SUMMER: Wildfire season has come early to the West, making this a good time to revisit Norman Maclean’s classic “Young Men and Fire,” republished last year in a 25th anniversary edition. The story of the 1949 firefighting disaster finds a modern echo in “Granite Mountain,” by firefighter Brendan McDonough with Stephan Talty, an account of the 2013 Arizona fire that took the lives of 19 of the author’s fellow “hotshots.”
Martin Wolk is a writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and msnbc.com, among other publications.