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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Thinking of the best books about Spokane becomes a highly personal endeavor

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, right, talks with local writer Jess Walter about his new book “The Angel of Rome and Other Stories” on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, during a Northwest Passages event held at Bing Crosby Theater in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, right, talks with local writer Jess Walter about his new book “The Angel of Rome and Other Stories” on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, during a Northwest Passages event held at Bing Crosby Theater in Spokane. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

I couldn’t even complete my own assignment.

Put to the task of writing a column about the books that best capture the spirit of this place – the Spokaniest books of them all – I asked an eclectic group of people to nominate their favorite.

Pick one, I said, and tell me why you did.

But: One?

Ridiculous.

Had I been given my own assignment – as someone who has always written more than my editors wanted – I would have instantly proposed three instead: “Housekeeping,” by Marilynne Robinson; “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fightfight in Heaven,” by Sherman Alexie; and “Statistical Abstract of my Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” by Jess Walter.

See? The first one isn’t even about Spokane proper, though I’d argue this place is more than those blocks within the city limits. The lovely, haunting “Housekeeping” is set in a fictionalized version of Sandpoint called Fingerbone – Spokane plays a faint role as the nearby city that people come from and go to.

But in much of the rural Inland Northwest, that’s exactly the role that Spokane plays in ordinary life: Biggest nearby town. And Robinson’s story of a fraying family living under the hot lights of a small town’s attention is a unique and beautifully expressed vision of life in the transient West.

Alexie’s “Lone Ranger” is also not set in the city proper but on the Spokane Indian Reservation – brought to hilarious and heart-wrenching life through a series of connected stories. It’s one of the best of all books about the Northwest and the long shadow of colonialism and dispossession, and the characters he created are unforgettable.

Walter’s “Abstract,” meanwhile, is set squarely in the city of Spokane – but it isn’t even a book! It’s a hybrid between a short story and an essay, and it anchored his 2013 story collection, “We Live in Water.”

Frankly, choosing a single Walter title for a list like this is absurd. Walter’s entire body of work is a list like this. In other words, my selections – as with anyone’s – are as much about me, and the ways that what I read intersects with my own sense of what Spokane is, as they are about some detached, objective idea of the “essential nature of this place.”

That’s why “Abstract” rises up for me – it correlates very closely with my own life, and my own sense of living here for the last 22 years. In the story, Walter wrestles with his sense of hating his hometown for its poverty and its lack of coastal-city cachet – and then making the case for staying.

“I think there are only two things you can do with your hometown: look for ways to make it better, or look for another place to live,” he wrote.

This piece was published when it felt like there was a turn in the culture of young creatives in Spokane, and it felt like a kind of clarion call to stay and make the city better, which so many people have done. For me, it paralleled a time in which I stopped moving around every few years and made Spokane my home.

So I’d start with those three books.

But: Three?

Ridiculous.

There are several non-fiction titles that tell versions of Spokane’s history – books I always encourage people to read when they move here. The 1983 true-crime saga, “Son,” about the South Hill rapist, covers the bizarre and still shocking case of Kevin Coe – and along the way it paints a portrait of a town that is cozy and insular, friendly but self-satisfied and out of step with the times, and dominated by a few powerful conservative interests.

(“Perched at the eastern edge of Washington state, twenty minutes from Idaho by freeway, the self-described ‘Hub of the Inland Empire’ is a good-hearted marketplace and railhead, a welcoming kind of place where cab drivers get out and open your door and wish you luck, and hometown boosterism has been raised to an art.”)

“Breaking Blue,” Timothy Egan’s 1992 exploration of the efforts of local historian and Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte to solve a decades-old murder, paints an indelible picture of a city’s deeply corrupt police force during the 1930s, and the complacent, calcified structures of authority – political and private – that didn’t want to be bothered with it decades later.

(“Set in a grand breach sliced through the basalt layers of the Columbia Plateau, Spokane was a town of cumbrous secrets, where the jazz artist Billy Tipton lives most of her adult life as a man, and the worst rapist in the city’s history turned out to be the son of a leading citizen, the managing editor of the afternoon newspaper.”)

“The Fair and The Falls,” by Bill Youngs, is an exhaustive – and exhausting – story about one of the most crucial events in the city’s history: the 1974 World’s Fair. The book is extremely detailed, very long (627 pages) and will test the depths of your desire to know about every development regarding the fair. But as a history of the politics of the time and that singular event, it’s unmatched.

Another crucial history is Jim Kershner’s “Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life,” a biography of the towering civil-rights figure as well as a clear-eyed examination of the racism and segregation he battled. (“Carl was born into a world where black residents carried around a list in their heads of the restaurants they were welcome in and a larger list of those where they were not.”)

And Don Cutler’s “’Hang Them All’: George Wright and the Plateau Indian War” tells of the murderous campaign carried out against the native people of this region by U.S. Army forces under Wright’s leadership in the 1850s.

And… And…

Other thoughts keep crowding in, as I think of Spokane and books. I remember the first time I read the short story “Hunters in the Snow,” by Tobias Wolff. The story – about a grimly funny and dire hunting trip taken by three friends – occurs in the unspecified country around Spokane, in the woods and around unnamed roadhouse bars. It’s not really about Spokane, per se, not in any larger way – but it’s a portrait of three men who one can easily see bumbling disastrously through the snow around here.

I think of the dark vision of “The Cassandra,” Sharma Shields’ novel of Hanford’s nuclear era. And the works of Bruce Holbert – whose novels are set in the rural landscape to the east of Spokane – and John Keeble – particularly his story collection “Nocturnal America” – provide a granular accuracy about working and living in the country. What’s true and authentic in their work is a deep knowledge of the kind of life not that many urban people are connected to anymore.

Here’s Keeble, in the story “The Fishers,” on the subject of wildfires: “In the summer most anything could start one: the spark from a passing train, heat lightning, chaff stuck up in the undercarriage of a combine. By August, the pine needles in the woods were dry a foot down. At harvest time, fires could rip through the wheat fields. The Ferguson girl got caught up in a field with a load of wheat once. When the fire came at her, she jumped out of her truck and ran through the flames. The truck exploded, the force knocked her flat and she got up and ran again. She had burned her legs and her feet right through the boots. But the people watched out for her and she was all right.”

And … And …

Such a personal list – and so incomplete. To say nothing of the fact that the literature of Spokane and the Inland Northwest is still being made. Last year’s “Fire Season,” a novel by Leyna Krow set around the Great Spokane Fire, is a recent addition to the list. It followed Walter’s “The Cold Millions” as a recent novel about Spokane’s early days, with resonances in the present.

Here’s Krow on one character’s first sight of the Great Spokane Fire: “In the sharp light of the northern evening, a red-orange pocket emerged in the distance. The fire was so new, or so hot, or so something else … that it had not yet begun to produce smoke. Later, the smoke would come, and ash, which would rain down on the town. But at first, it was just the flames.”

Both of them remind us that we live in the hinged moment between the history of this place and its future.

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