West of Here and other Olympic Peninsula books

Many of us are aware of the unique climate and beauty of the Olympic Peninsula. But, not so many are aware that this area has served as the setting for a number of very good books, some of which have hit the New York Times best seller list, and all of which are rich with references to local landmarks and lore.

Below are three such books:

West of Here, Jonathan Evison, 2011
Beyond the Trails, Francis Caldwell, 1998
The Other, David Guterson, 2008

West of Here is a historical novel set in Port Angeles, with a haunting cast of characters whose lives parallel each other in two time periods, the late 1800’s and the present day. Jonathan Evison is a very talented writer, who engages the reader in his first paragraphs, builds memorable characters, and as my son says, “occasionally makes you laugh like a hyena.”

If you love the Peninsula, you will be pleased to find exquisite detail about many local landmarks, from the Low Divide to the Elwah dams, from to KFC in PA to Jamestown in Sequim. Furthermore, Jonathan weaves in themes that touch on important modern day issues such as wilderness conservation, socioeconomic strife, and the criminal justice system.

This book is not a simple read. Jonathan develops two sets of characters and plots and swaps back and forth between the two. So you do need to concentrate at times, but overall this is a remarkable book, set in a remarkable place, which details quite a bit of the history of the region.

Beyond the Trails is a work of non-fiction which traces the life of one of the Peninsula’s heroic pioneers, Herb Crisler, through the early and mid 1900’s.  Herb is likely the man with the most experience in the remote and spectacular areas of the Olympic Mountains who has ever lived.

Herb and his wife Lois lived at Humes Ranch in the Elwah valley in the 1940’s and 1950’s and traversed the mountains hauling early film cameras to capture the beauty of the Olympic wilderness. The couple showcased their films on national tours, and eventually sold much of the footage to Walt Disney, who made a famous 1950’s era animal film from it.

Like Jonathan Evision, Francis Caldwell’s historical research and level of detail is very impressive. Furthermore, in this straightforward biography, he uses the passion and transformation of the main character to make a strong case for the value of the wilderness in a non-confrontational and entirely convincing approach.

The book is replete with local landmarks and lore. Have you ever wondered what the “resort” was like at the Olympic Hot Springs? Did you know that someone lived on top of Hurricane Hill in a fire lookout for an entire winter in the mid 1940’s? Can you imagine someone summiting the three highest peaks in the Olympics while carrying carrier pigeons and a film camera, all in one trip, without carrying ANY food?

The contrast between Herb Crisler in “Beyond the Trails” and the Press group in “West of Here”, both of whom were financed by Seattle media to take on Olympic crossings, could not be more stark. The Press Expedition was lucky enough to survive trying to drag wooden boats up the Elwha and “post hole” through the snows of winter on the flanks of Mt. Olympus. They are very lucky they didn’t go the route of the Donner party in California.

Herb Cristler thrived in more than one hundred difficult expeditions in the Olympics because he knew the climate, the topography, the animals, and his own limits.

The characters in David Gutterson’s coming of age novel, The Other also mount expeditions through the Olympics. Gutterson, the award winning author of “Snow Falling on Cedars”, chose the West End of the Olympic Peninsula as the backdrop for much of this work. The book chronicles the life of two teens raised in the Seattle area who grow infatuated with the more remote areas of the western Olympic mountains, in particular those accessible from the South Fork of the Hoh river.

Both of the boys are well educated, smart, and interesting young men. Yet some combination of family, education, and the 1970’s, leads one of the characters to the fringes of the social and geographical landscape. He ends up living in a cave up off the South Fork Hoh, taking a more philosophical and ultimately more tragic path than either Herb Chrisler or the Press Expedition.

All of the above are impressive works set on the Peninsula.

If you are looking for lighter fare, there are a number of “quick reads” which make for good casual reading while still being full of local landmarks and lore.

The Lady of the Lake, 2000. , Mavis Amundson, This short non-fiction account of a murder in the 1950’s features Port Angeles and Lake Crescent as a backdrop.

Tubal Cain, Hal Burton, 2008. This mystery, set in the early 1900’s, features Port Townsend, Quilcene, the upper Dungeness valley, and the Tubal Cain mine as a backdrop.

The Cave of Secrets, Hal Burton, 2002. This mystery of buried Chinese treasure, with a twin timeline somewhat like West of Here, features La Push and Neah Bay as a backdrop.

We’d love to hear about your favorite Olympic Peninsula books!

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