"My father never met me without asking how many elk I'd killed," writes award-winning Oregon novelist Craig Lesley in his debut work of...
“My father never met me without asking how many elk I’d killed,” writes award-winning Oregon novelist Craig Lesley in his debut work of nonfiction. “I resented the question because killing elk wasn’t important to me. Doing well in school, teaching successfully, writing books, taking care of my own family … all of that meant more to me than killing elk.”
Rudell, Lesley’s biological father, walked out on his mother; years later, she would take her two children and run away from Vern Hecker, Lesley’s stepfather. Both men were largely conspicuous for their failures as supportive husbands and nurturing parents. Lesley credits his mother, Hazel, for raising him and encouraging him to be the first in the family to attend college.
“She’s the real hero,” he admits. So why write about his father?
Because Rudell’s influence was enormous, Lesley explains in “Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood” (St. Martin’s Press, 357 pp., $24.95). In the book, other relatives called Rudell a loser, shell-shocked (from experiences in World War II) and “weak as water.” He never sent child support but at 40 began having kids with a second wife, Raylene, age 15. Home was a dilapidated, single-wide trailer in Monument, whose best feature was its location 70 miles from the nearest cop. Hazel dubbed the area Oregon Appalachia. Rudell’s living came from disability checks, trapping coyotes (pelts brought $60 apiece), poaching deer and elk, prospecting for gold and building barbed-wire fence.
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The man and his questionable ethics fueled Lesley’s obsession for writing about lives of Westerners similar to his father. Neglect, too, was a motivator. Lesley raised “an alcohol-damaged Indian boy just to show the old man I could succeed as a father where he had fallen down.” Readers of Lesley’s most recent novel, “Storm Riders,” may be surprised that much of that foster-parent experience actually happened.
Craig Lesley will read from “Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood” this fall at these area locations: 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle Central Library,
1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle, free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org); 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free
(206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com); 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at Parkplace Books, 348 Parkplace Center, Kirkland (425-828-6546); 5:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at Third Place Books,
17171 Bothell Way N.E. in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com); 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Fremont Place Book Co., 621 N. 35th St., Seattle (206-547-5970 or www.fremontplacebooks.com); 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the University Book Store, 15311 Main St., Mill Creek, free (425-385-3530 or www.ubookstore.com).
Witnessing how life inspires art is fascinating. As with Tobias Wolff’s memoir, “This Boy’s Life,” another Northwest writer’s account of a difficult upbringing, Lesley’s writing is vividly lyrical despite the seedy surroundings. He brings his talents as a novelist — believable dialogue, compelling detail, well-developed personalities — to the page. Like a poet, he repeats his ever-hopeful mother’s refrain as the family relocates from one tiny Oregon town to another: We’ll make a fresh start.
Good times do offset bad. In Baker, still living with his stepfather and attending public school, Lesley forms friendships he has kept to this day. In Madras, where his mother took her children after running away, he works at his Uncle Oscar’s sporting-goods shop, a teenager learning trust and responsibility. Oscar is affectionate and fun, everything his father and stepfather were not. Later, Lesley earns a scholarship for undergraduate studies at Whitman College. Years pass and he gradually befriends his half-brother, Ormand, in Monument. Lesley’s first marriage ends in divorce, and he reluctantly gives up his adopted son — but a second marriage thrives. Father to two daughters, Lesley even begins to make peace with Rudell.
Because few dates or ages are mentioned, the chronology is sometimes vague. Events span decades, into Lesley’s middle age. Several milestones I was curious about — the incident that finally triggered his mother’s departure from Vern; an agricultural accident in which Lesley broke both legs and his pelvis; meeting and marrying Lesley’s second wife; the births of both girls; earning graduate-school money in Alaska — receive little notice.
When asked what helps make a good writer, Ernest Hemingway once said: an unhappy childhood. Clearly, Craig Lesley’s anger carried him over many tough times. The “tricky business” between him and his father now seems to have found a measure of reconciliation, however. Although recent summer wildfires burned almost all the fences Rudell ever built, Lesley and Ormand finally managed a trip into the mountains to scatter their father’s ashes in elk camp.