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Shawn Vestal: From the Palouse to the Puget Sound, new book delves into Washington’s lost literary history

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 16, 2019

If you’re a reader, you may think you have a sense of the Northwest’s literary history.

Maybe you think of Theodore Roethke or Carolyn Kizer. You might think of Ken Kesey or Richard Hugo. Perhaps your mind drifts more toward the still-living likes of Jess Walter or transplant Annie Proulx.

But have you heard of Anita Pettibone, the Spokane writer whose novels of pioneer-era Washington in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s received national attention?

Or Ada Woodruff Anderson, whose 1915 novel, “The Rim of the Desert,” was a national bestseller about a former prospector who tries to make his fortune with the nascent fruit fields around Wenatchee?

Or Mourning Dove, the Okanagan tribal member born Christine Quintasket, whose 1927 novel, “Cowegea, The Half-Blood,” was credited with refashioning the Western story through Native eyes and themes in a way that was forward-thinking for its time?

These works and more form the basis of the fascinating new book by author Peter Donahue, “Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers: Washington’s Lost Literary Legacy.” Donahue exhumes the state’s deep literary history from the late 1800s through the 1960s.

It’s a look at writers who are now largely forgotten – even among those of us who think we pay attention to this stuff – but who were prominent in their day.

The book is built on a series of columns Donahue wrote for Columbia: The Magazine of the Northwest. He started more than a decade ago, with a few of the better-known little-known writers, and just kept finding more.

“It was just like an onion, peeling back one layer at a time,” he said. “I kept finding them, kept reading them, kept finding them worthy of being read.”

Donahue is an author and educator in the Okanogan Valley, who currently teaches English at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak. His books include the novels “Madison House” and “Clara and Merrit,” and the story collection “The Cornelius Arms.” His most recent book is “Three Sides Water,” a collection of three short novels.

His new collection of essays tells stories of poets and historians, journalists and memoirists. One chapter deals with the writers he dubs “The Big Three” – Nard Jones, Patricia Campbell and Archie Bins.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Jones wrote novels set all over Washington, produced newspaper columns and wrote a portrait of the state titled “Evergreen Land,” which includes this assertion: “I remain unregenerate, a Salmon Eater, an Apple Knocker, a Rain Worshipper, a Sagebrusher, a Whistle Punk from the Big Woods. In short, a Pacific Northwesterner.”

Donahue writes that, “No writer before or since Jones has had a more thorough grasp of the terrain, history and people of the Northwest.”

His novels include “Wheat Women,” “Still to the West,” “The Island” and his most popular work, “Swift Flows the River.”

Campbell wrote a series of novels focused on the rough pioneer days of the state, in particular in and around Port Townsend, often with women protagonists. Donahue calls Bins the “dean of Northwest literature,” who wrote nine novels that ranged from the sea to the land, as well as histories and books for young readers.

The book includes many more authors and poets, and particularly a large number of women writers, who frequently produced books in the genres that were less male-dominated – such as historical romance or memoir, Donahue said.

What you often see, in their subject matter and approach, is that these books represent the parts of the state’s history – whether it’s tribal history or attention to the lives of women inside the stories that were traditionally male-focused – that have long been overlooked. Their authors were pushing at boundaries and trying to make the picture of our state and its history richer, fuller, truer.

Scores of writers are represented in the book, with some who are surely stronger than others. But Donahue said each of them helps fill in an important, and little-known, part of our state’s heritage. Donahue’s book brings to life these writers and their stories of the Palouse and the Puget Sound, of the woods and the waters, of the pioneers and the tribes – stories from every corner of the Evergreen State.

“I think they’re valuable not just for their literary merit, but for the literary history they represent,” he said. “My favorite one is always the one I’m talking about at the moment.”