We asked several people in the community for the one book that best represents the spirit of Spokane:
Eva Silverstone, arts education specialist, Spokane Public Library
When I first moved to Spokane from New York City in 2002, I often had the sense that there must be some big event somewhere on the other side of town where all the people were. The sidewalks downtown, near the library where I worked, were so barren. Fast-forward a few years and I was introduced to another New Yorker who was transplanted to Spokane (though for very different reasons). “Citizen Vince” by Jess Walter instantly resonated with me! Vince’s perspective of this city that was small enough to not be noticed but big enough so he could blend in was spot on. Vince also seemed hopeful about his place in Spokane, and I did too. It was a place where it was not too hard to make a difference. I still feel that and I’m grateful to Vince – and Jess Walter – for helping with my initial homesickness when I moved here.
Kate Peterson, director of Get Lit! for Eastern Washington University
The most Spokane book to me is “Instructions For My Mother’s Funeral” by Laura Read. Really, all of Laura’s work comes to mind, but especially Instructions, because it was really inspiring and motivating to me as someone who had just moved to Spokane to get my MFA (creative writing graduate degree at Eastern Washington University). I moved here in 2012, the year that book was published, and I remember thinking that it was so exciting that someone who graduated from the MFA, someone who was writing poetry I really loved – the same kinds of poems I wanted to write, now had this incredible book published. She was doing the thing, and maybe I could do it too someday! So many of the writers I love here in Spokane came through the MFA program or are teachers in the program, so any writer with a connection to the MFA always feels like a very Spokane writer to me.
Some other examples include Christopher Howell, Leyna Krow, Aileen Keown Vaux, Alexis Smith, Tim Greenup … the list really could go on and on!
LaRae Wiley, executive director, Salish School of Spokane
The one book that I think is essential and is on the top of my Spokane books list is a poetry book, “Full Moon On The Reservation” by Gloria Bird. It was her first book of poetry, published in 1993. Gloria Bird is a Spokane tribal member and her poetry really resonates with me. This particular book brings back memories of my own journey into my Native identity when my children were young. It was, and still is, so powerful for me because it was written by a local Native woman. When I first read this book, I was struck by the immediacy and connectedness I felt. Bird’s work empowered me to follow my artistic vision as a singer-songwriter. I think “Full Moon on the Reservation” adds a unique and important voice to the literary landscape of Spokane and the Inland Northwest.
Melissa Luck, executive news director, KXLY
No book captures the essence of Spokane like “The Cold Millions.” Set in Spokane in the early 1900s, Jess Walter’s most recent novel has themes and characters that not only defined the early years of this city, but also echo today. The blue-collar workers versus the elite, the suits on the hill versus stiffs in the valleys – “The Cold Millions” brings this city to life. While I was reading it, I was often late for work because I was compelled to drive past the locations where the characters lived and worked. I had to see the house on West Sinto where Spokane’s acting police chief was killed. That shiny Apple Store downtown? I’ll forever picture the vaudeville theater The Comique instead, where a woman once performed with a live cougar. And, who knew that the street I drive on every day to get home was the sight of the first successful nonviolent protest in U.S. history? I love Jess’ cadence, I love how richly he paints our town. I love how rough and tumble this place was, and how that history still lives in the cobblestones just below the surface.
Sharma Shields, novelist, publisher and librarian
“The Spokane River,” edited by Paul Lindholdt. If someone were to move to Spokane and I wanted to give them a great Spokane read, this anthology might be the winner. Not only will it introduce them to many of the best writers in our region, including Nance Van Winckel, Tod Marshall, Jack Nisbet and Jess Walter, it will also introduce them to the complex identity of this place, to its sorrows and injustices (colonialism, damming, pollution, climate change), as well as to its delights and resources. Lindholdt writes in his intro, “For this book, I have turned to the paddlers, poets, and archeologists; the entomologists and hydrologists; the historians and culture warriors; people who catch fish and people who write about fish; the local folks whose families have lived along this river and its tributaries for decades or for centuries. No such book would be complete without the sanction of and input from the Spokane Tribe of Indians …” This anthology will give any Spokane resident a rich sense of our environs and urge us all to become river-keepers.
Janelle Smith, owner of Wishing Tree Books
“Mighty Inside,” by Sundee Frazier, takes place in segregated Spokane during the 1950s. Melvin is a Black boy with a stutter who is starting to understand the need to speak up for racial justice but struggles with how to do so. The story is based on the author’s own Black family who lived in a white neighborhood during the same time. There are many references to places and events in Spokane during the ’50s, which makes reading the story a bit of a walk through local history.
Kris Dinnison, author and owner of Atticus Coffee and Gifts
One of my favorite Spokane reads is “Whale Talk,” by Chris Crutcher. The novel is actually set in a fictional town called Cutter, 50 miles outside of Spokane, but the settings are very Eastern Washington, and the climax occurs at Hoopfest, so it feels like a Spokane novel. The protagonist, T.J., is a multiracial teen adopted by a white family and going to a small town high school. He hates the worship given to the varsity athletes in his school, so he agrees to help form a swim team that’s comprised entirely of misfit, newbie swimmers who have all been outsiders for one reason or another. I love an underdog story, and this one has several underdogs to choose from. The story also deals with bullying, racism, violence and guns. In spite of the fact the book was written in 2001, it remains stunningly, and sadly, relevant. Crutcher grew up in Cascade, Idaho, and has set many of his novels in Washington, Idaho and Montana. Two of his novels, “Stotan!” and “Ironman,” are also set in Spokane.
Chris Crutcher, author
I’ve gotta go with Jess Walter’s collection of short stories, “The Angel of Rome.” While not all of the stories are set in Spokane, Jess always returns, and puts Spokane in a humanistic light, or maybe I should say a humane light. There is an air of authority that comes from the little details that so many of us who live here know to be true. There’s a matter-of-factness that rings true. I think Jess may well be our bard.
Among other books set in Spokane (I haven’t read too many), I’d include Terry Davis’ “Vision Quest,” Several others of Jess’. I’m not quite narcissistic enough to include any of my own … but it’s close.
Sheri Boggs, writer and Spokane County librarian
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. There are those who will say this pick is problematic due to allegations of misconduct leveled against Alexie in early 2018. Yes, I believe the women. And yes, I have conflicting thoughts about the author. Still, I’m rock solid in my belief that “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Alexie’s 2007 YA novel, belongs on the list of essential Spokane reads. A love letter to his two hometowns, Wellpinit and Reardan, “Absolutely True Diary” is the story of aspiring cartoonist Junior, who realizes the only way off the rez is by getting a good education. He transfers to the nearby all-white high school where “the only other Indian is the school mascot,” but soon excels in basketball and makes new friends – even while navigating profound losses at home. Honest in its portrayal of poverty, loyalty, ambition and adolescence, “Absolutely True Diary” is funny and profane, offering just as much to adult readers as books by a few of my other fave Spokane writers, Jess Walter and Sharma Shields. It’s the perfect book for reluctant Spokanites and recent returnees alike, who, in the immortal words of George Bailey, want to shake off the dust of their “crummy little town,” while also knowing someday you’ll appreciate its broken sidewalks and gnarly old trees.
William Stimson, author and retired professor of journalism
The two nonfiction authors that come immediately to my mind are so obvious I presume others will mention them. John Fahey wrote nine books that cover early Inland Empire history, every one of them illuminated by Fahey’s own extensive experience with the people and politics of Spokane. Spokane history after Fahey is covered by Bill Youngs’ history of “The Fair and the Falls,” absolutely invaluable because it is based on interviews with Spokane’s Expo-era leadership when they were still available.
There are, however, few such comprehensive books on Spokane history. Readers must, in effect, become their own historians. When I am looking for Spokane history, I look for the little memoirs and narrow-scoped but loving narratives, like “Spokane Coronas,” by Edmund Becher or Rowland Bond’s “Early Birds In the Northwest.” One of my favorites in this category is “Saga of a Western Town,” by Jay J. Kalez. It is a collection of articles by an author who knew many of the historic characters he describes.
Kalez remembers as a little boy, witnessing an incident when two men got in a fight and one stabbed the other with a pitch fork. Spokane’s famous lawman, Joel Warren, 6-foot tall and equipped with a reputation, was called in. The culprit took refuge in the upper story of a barn at First and Jefferson. The barrel of his shotgun was visible at the window. Warren shouted, “You up there. You can drop that gun and come walking out of there with your hands up, or I can come in after you. Make up your mind fast. It’s hot down here.” The man came out.
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