Pharos Editions, with the help of some contemporary local writers, brings some out-of-print Northwest books back to local shelves.
There’s nothing specifically Northwestern about the mission of innovative Seattle-based publishing imprint Pharos Editions, which employs respected writers as curators to rescue their own favorite books from the jaws of obscurity. Yet among the two dozen unjustly neglected titles published over their first five years, they have brought to light an impressive number of lost treasures from our region, welcome additions to any Northwest bookshelf for mossbacks and newcomers alike.
It all began with their very first title, Robert Cantwell’s “The Land of Plenty,” a gritty proletarian novel mostly out of print since 1935, chosen and introduced by Spokane writer Jess Walter. This stark, hard-boiled tale of mounting tensions boiling over into a violent strike in a Washington mill town was inspired by Cantwell’s own experiences in Hoquiam, and is arguably the first great novel of the Northwest. Somewhere between John Steinbeck and the leftist noir of James M. Cain, the book points the way to Ken Kesey’s rainy, rough-hewed labor and logging saga “Sometimes a Great Notion,” published 30 years later.
Not long ago, Pharos revisited the scarred remains of the majestic forests whose conquest is depicted in Cantwell and Kesey, with the 30th-anniversary edition of Robert Michael Pyle’s “Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land,” introduced by local author David Guterson. Pyle’s keen naturalist’s eye eschews the pristine scenery in the foreground of much nature writing, focusing instead on the clear-cut Willapa Hills, a fragile biome laid bare by overlogging, no longer picturesque but still beautiful in a hurt and healing state. Laid out season by season, Pyle’s clear-eyed prose includes exceptionally subtle and evocative descriptions of our region, including many aspects typically beneath our notice. No mere environmentalist screed, Pyle’s book deepens and enriches our appreciation for the complexity of the Cascadian ecosystem, and our own problematic place in it.
Pyle offered his own contribution to this growing shelf of Northwest classics by curating a new Pharos edition of “Having Everything Right: Essays of Place,” by Kim Stafford, son of the poet William Stafford and founder of the Northwest Writing Institute. The collection’s title is a rough translation of a Kwakiutl place name — he-lade — that is suggestive of Stafford’s own feeling for how the places we dwell and pass through shape our lives, and are shaped by them. Stafford’s observations on our sense of being at home and being estranged, often at the same time, perfectly complement Pyle’s views. At times Stafford’s prose is so rich that it seems one could drive a wedge into his paragraphs and split them along the grain into verse. This lyricism alternates with anecdotal ease, spinning tales of family, childhood and local characters and lore.
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For readers who grew up in the maritime Northwest, Stafford’s recollections of endless muddy childhood adventuring in the not-quite-wilderness in and around Portland are certain to bring back a rush of sympathetic memories. He celebrates those little wild spaces — scattered Edens — that surround and permeate even our most urban quarters, advancing like armies of blackberry bramble, or slipping up through the cracks like indomitable horsetails. Stafford’s slim, sublime collection awakens us over and over to the delicacy, immensity and wonder of our environs.
In one essay, Stafford recounts how his views on people and nature were shaped by a gift from his grandmother, Theodora Kroeber’s book “Ishi in Two Worlds,” about the last remaining survivor of his California tribe. In her introduction to the Pharos edition of Rick Rubin’s “Naked Against the Rain: The People of the Lower Columbia River, 1770-1830,” Rene Denfeld tells a similar story, relating how Rubin’s vivid and moving account of this all-but-forgotten indigenous culture radically altered her sense of the place she calls home. Rubin’s engrossing and informative account brings to life the thriving Chinook peoples who flourished along the lower Columbia River for thousands of years, and whose culture vanished in the span of a single lifetime after the arrival of European traders and settlers with their diseases, a mere two centuries ago. When we use the word “chinook” meaning a kind of salmon, a warm wind or an old trade jargon, we unconsciously refer to a vanished civilization that, together with the Salish peoples of the inland seas, dominated our region for untold ages.
Pharos’ sibling imprint Softskull Press recently reprinted another important Northwest story, Tom Hansen’s harrowing drug memoir “American Junkie.” This unflinching account of the Edmonds native’s descent into and recovery from the furthest extremes of heroin addiction during the heady days of Seattle’s grunge scene feels tragically timely amid the burgeoning opioid crisis that currently stalks our cities and towns. Read as both a cautionary tale and an occasion for empathy as we struggle to reclaim lost lives and minds from the irresistible clutches of oblivion, Hansen’s nightmarish odyssey is one of the most potent memoirs of its kind.