From Deep River to Westport: then, now, fact and fiction

In my earliest draft of Beyond the Ripples, I had already determined several plot points. Yes, Annie would pitch the bottle in the Willamette River upstream of Wilsonville – how about Newberg? Yes, it would tumble over the Willamette Falls. And yes, Ernest would spy it somewhere along the Columbia River. As I imagined where exactly Ernest might find the bottle, my heart knew it would be Westport. Today, that’s the point of this story when I hear Dad begin to groan. Oh Deder, he sighs. You didn’t listen close enough. Then he laughs as if the joke is on him.

Dad created a marvelous model train community in the garage of the last home he and Mom owned in Sellwood. If you haven’t before watched the video about this, it is truly worth your time, especially if you are a model train aficionado (see Those things left behind). As Dad told us his stories about this fictional setting, he related parts of it to the coastal village of Westport. (Dad freely mixed and matched time periods and geographical places with a fire tower peeking out to longshore workers and a port. After all, it was story-telling at its finest. And he was a master.)

Yes, my character Ernest pulls the bottle out near Westport, Oregon – you know the place, one you easily miss if you’re not paying attention when you travel along Highway 30 from St. Helens to Astoria. (By the way, my friend Michael would urge you to read Beyond the Ripples. After all, “it was the best book he read” the year he got to it.)

Westport, Oregon in winter near Ferry Road.

We’ll get back to Westport, but first my book recommendation. It was serendipitous that I finally sat down to read Karl Marlantes’ epic Deep River. Rarely have I read a single book that weaves together so many of my deep connections and interests. In its earliest pages, I couldn’t help but think about my relatives who too spent time in this coastal region adjacent to Astoria and Willapa Bay. Like my grandfather, who, as a child traveled via steamboat, offloading at Megler to travel via railroad to Ocean Park, Washington, at the turn of the century. My family, although not rich by many standards, clearly was living in the lap of luxury compared to the hard-working mostly immigrant loggers and fisherpersons fictionalized in Deep River. Or during World War I, this grandfather of mine, a teen now, began a lending/rental library during the summer in Ocean Park, rich with access to books from his grandfather’s J.K. Gill Book Company. I pored over the map inset in Deep River so many times I left smudges, trying to place fictional spots like Ilmahenki in relationship to real life Oysterville and Naselle. Just a decade before Malentes kicks off his opening to Deep River, my great great J.K. Gill and others founded Ocean Park (1883) as a Methodist Revival Camp. My reading traveled between Marlantes’ epic adventure and to my own peninsula memories, such as ferrying across the mouth of the Columbia in those days before the Astoria-Megler Bridge, and those of my relatives.

As I moved further into the book, I focused on details illustrating workplace safety dangers and and living conditions, especially in logging, and destruction of those old growth forests. So many take for granted the gains we have made, at least in safety, thanks to early labor leaders. (It’s worth viewing the review from my colleague, labor historian Marcus Widenor in the NW Labor Press.) Yet I too know how logging and fishing are our most hazardous jobs in Oregon, even today, working as I do at a research institute that investigates workplace fatalities. Also today, industries not then imagined: motion picture, Amazon warehouses, Burgerville, all look to unions as they attempt to bring safety and fairness to their workforce.

Now, I would say Deep River is a bit long. The details were appreciated by me, but I might imagine someone wanting the plot to move faster, skipping through some. I can imagine a fictitious conversation between KM and his editor

Ed: You know, Karl, you really need to cut this back. I'm thinking 200 pages at least. 
KM: Sorry, can't be done.
Ed: But Karl, it'll sell better. Some folks can't get past 200 pages, not to mention 700. Seriously, mark my words.
KM: It'll sell. Just wait.
Ed: I beg of you, Karl.
KM: What do you want to go? Really? How can I get rid of details about the Centralia Armistice Day Massacre of 1919? The Astoria fire of 1922? The rise of the Wobblies in Oregon? You do know, don't you (with a bit of disgust in his voice) that everyone in Oregon refers to the Columbia Mouth as the Graveyard of the Pacific? I suspect you think that should go too.....
Ed: Okay. Forget it. Never mind. 

Then, there’s Astoria. (Um…yes, a gentle reminder that Astoria is the setting of my upcoming book.) Astoria makes me recall, not just the Astoria Column and Bridge, but small towns to the north, beyond Tongue Point, where Scandanavian immigrants settled in the time of my greats and great greats. Yes: that circles us back to Westport.

Now Dad is vigorously saying, “Deder, not that Westport!” I know Dad! I figured this out even while I was still drafting my novel. But now I want to tell you! Yes, I know about your true Westport! Earlier this month your favorite son-in-law and I were visiting our friends near there. We swooped by, yep, Westport. Westport, Washington! Yes, Dad, I know this Westport is located at the mouth of Grays Harbor. Yes, I get that in the early 1900s it was a busy fishing center, complete with its own lighthouse (yes, like the lighthouse in your model railroad). I wasn’t really paying attention back then, was I? I do wish we were having this conversation in real life, now, but I still hear you laughing. And a few years later after this “from spirit to earth” discussion you’ll be muttering, “remember when you were confused about Westport?” Kind of like how you used that hard ball line for so many years. And hey, Dad. You’d love Deep River. All of it. Really.

Learn more about Humanity’s Grace.

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