Some writers go their entire career without garnering reviews as good as the ones that Portland author Craig Lesley received for his first novel, “Winterkill.”
“Unforgettable,” wrote the Boston Globe, with “prose as clear as the morning air.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer called the book “profoundly lyrical” and said that “Lesley has a rare gift for evoking a timeless quality in a setting littered with modern icons.”
“Danny Kachiah,” the Los Angeles Times wrote about Lesley’s protagonist, “remains a figure of complexity, struggling toward salvation … an everyman who could stand in for any one of us.”
Lesley, 59, has written three other novels in the 20 years following the publication of “Winterkill” (Picador, 306 pages, $14), but none has been more highly praised. Which is why we chose it as the August reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Don’t let that keep you from sampling the other three. Each is notable for its portrayal of the Inland Northwest, especially northeastern Oregon and the Columbia Basin country. Just start with “Winterkill.”
Recently retired from his English teaching job at Clackamas Community College, Lesley has been noted for his writings about Native Americans. But don’t be confused: His novels are not what have been referred to as his “Native American writings.”
Born in The Dalles, Ore., Lesley grew up in Eastern Oregon, living in such towns as Pendleton, Madras and Hermiston. The son of a woman who worked for both the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes, Lesley is familiar not just with the territory but the people who live there.
But he isn’t Native American himself. He’s just a talented writer who is intrigued by both by the people and place he grew up with.
“I was always fascinated by the small towns and the country, the kinds of people who inhabit that country and the codes that they live by,” Lesley said in a 1990 interview. Referring to “Winterkill” and its sequel, 1989’s “River Song,” he said: “I was trying to create a sense of the country and the people and the codes all at once.”
In “Winterkill,” Danny Kachiah is an aging rodeo rider, a Nez Perce who has never taken the time or effort to connect with his tribal culture.
But as middle age approaches, he discovers a need for something more. And when his ex-wife dies in a car accident, leaving him a son whom he barely knows, he begins to recall the stories that his own father, Red Shirt, had told him.
Danny’s sojourn (which is continued in “River Song”) takes him through the interior of the Inland Northwest, from Eastern Oregon powwows to Columbia Gorge fishing sites. Lesley presents a variety of memorable characters, from Red Shirt to his cocky son, Jack.
In a phone interview from Sitka, Alaska, where he is vacationing, Lesley said he remains proud of the book.
“I think the most exciting thing about it is how many high schools and colleges still teach it,” he said. “So I think it’s held up well over the years. I think it’s one of the first novels, of my generation, to raise people’s awareness of Native American situations in the Pacific Northwest.”
Lesley accomplishes his intent with unadorned prose, avoiding the highs and lows of melodrama. The result is a kind of realism that is applied typically only to the best of contemporary fiction. And in the case of “Winterkill,” Lesley captures an authentic sense of contemporary Indian culture.
But then that’s getting a bit ahead of things, especially for those of you who haven’t read Lesley’s work. Its qualities are there on the page for you to discover on your own.
Book club update
Next month, we’re going to tackle something in nonfiction: namely, Mitch Finley’s book “Prayer for People Who Think Too Much: A Guide to Everyday, Anywhere Prayer from the World’s Faith Traditions” (Skylight Paths Publishing, 224 pages, $16.95 paper).
Remember, you can join the online version of the club by going to www.spokesmanreview.com/interactive/bookclub/ and following the instructions. Even if you don’t want to get on the mailing list (we send no spam, really), you can just use the form to submit a review of the book that we’re reading. Or another, if you feel the inclination.
And you can suggest future reading selections. The only criteria we use are, one, the book must be by a Northwest author and, two, it should (note the qualifier) be in paperback. We do make exceptions, but we try as hard as we can to be easy on everyone’s pocketbook.
Some suggestions: “The Big Sky,” A.B. Guthrie; “Red Harvest,” Dashiell Hammett (he once lived both in Spokane and Tacoma, and the novel is supposedly set in Montana); “Athletic Shorts,” Chris Crutcher; “Yellowfish,” John Keeble; “Out of the Channel,” John Keeble; “Vision Quest,” Terry Davis; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver; “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Ursula Le Guin; “Middle Passage,” Charles Johnson; “Waxwings,” Jonathan Raban; “My Russian,” Deirdre McNamer.
Maybe you have some of your own. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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