I want to become a western writer which is, I think, different from a writer of westerns. I’m an urban East Coast transplant to Western Washington with a story I want to tell set in the area around present day Yakima. To tell my tale, I have to learn about Eastern Washington as it was, imagine how its past figures in its present and then imagine how together, past and present influence people there. Only then will I be able to imagine how area inhabitants will behave in the story I aim to write. All this imagining is easier for me if I get some help from other writers who have experienced Eastern Washington firsthand. So when Seattle Times reviewer Adam Woog listed your new novel Lonesome Animals set in the Okanogan region as one of the best mysteries of 2012 and mentioned that East of the Cascades your own roots tunnel down deep and that your novel’s protagonist is based on your great grandfather, I read your book.
As a timid retired English prof who eschews violence on paper, film, and in real life, I’m an unlikely fan of your grisly story. But even though, or maybe
even because, your protagonist, retired Sheriff Russell Strawl, fits my definition of a psychopath, I kept turning the pages. And even though the bleak mountainous Okanogan landscape of the Depression Era where Strawl tracks his quarry is short on tourist attractions except for the Coulee Dam going up, I read on. It was more than just the suspense of a manhunt or even your powerful prose that held me captive. It was the westerness of Strawl, his story, and its setting. This westerness is what kept me up late to finish it in spite of the evisceration, flaying, and filleting of living people that you describe with the predictable frequency of Austen recounting house parties at the manor. I kept trying to figure out what defined this pervasive sense of westerness.
Strawl is a far cry from the western hero I grew up watching in the movies, the laconic cowboy in a white hat who outguns the bad guy, rescues the woman, and gallops off into the wide open spaces with her behind him on his white horse. In fact, you announce in your first sentence that this “strong silent man of the West” is a myth. Instead Strawl is a badass whose loveless childhood and violent career have made him a monstrous loner incapable of sustaining family life or any other social life either. His brains and toughness are both feared and venerated even when he hurts innocent people. You explain that men of the vast and still Okanogan country only appear laconic because the silence around them drives them into constant conversation with themselves, so they perceive a greeting or comment as “the jar of another’s words pouring into the torrent of their own.”
When I read that, I thought I might identify with your protagonist because I talk to myself all the time and have since I was a lonely only child. But I’m delighted to be interrupted and have never been accused of being laconic. I don’t identify with Strawl. I don’t even like him. But I admire his smarts and his “western” skill set: horseback riding, camping, shooting, hunting, and easy familiarity with the native flora and fauna. And because my Yakima-set novel will include several nasty types, and because I’ve never created a protagonist I didn’t like and identify with, Russell Strawl, almost a caricature of a sociopath, is instructive.
Rural swaths of Washington State attract folks who, like him, are looking to lose themselves. But the territory Strawl lives in and polices is changing and its wide open spaces are fewer and farther apart. The Coulee River is being damned and the native tribes are retreating to smaller and more remote allotments of land. Religious zealots of all sorts are turning up along with loonies, eccentrics, and survivalists. And these disparate folks mingle with decidedly disastrous results. Strawl adopts an Indian boy who, upon exposure to Catholicism, becomes a self-anointed prophet attracting followers into a mountain encampment that makes Waco, TX look like a Zen spa. Just as the dam subdues the Coulee, cars, trains, and trucks replace horses, and towns form where once there was only a settler or two. Thanks in part to Manifest Destiny, Strawl’s territory, like Huck Finn’s, is “getting civilized.”
Or maybe not so much. In 2003, shortly after I moved here, I heard Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske speak. He was touting the low homicide rate in Seattle compared to the higher rate in the countryside. Extending his arm and pointing, he said, “But out there it’s still the wild, wild West.” Maybe this westerness that I seek to understand and define has more to do with ambivalence towards encroaching “civilization” and the crowds and complexity it brings to those wide open spaces revered by so many early Americans. Maybe the promise of freedom inherent in Manifest Destiny was false. Maybe real westerners see dams and other promises of “progress” as enemies of their freedom which thrives in the wild and resists taming. After reading your gripping and scary story, I have a better idea of what Chief Kerlikowske meant and of how to think about Eastern Washington where urban gang bangers now scrap over turf with skinheads, Aryan Brothers, Native Americans, winery owners, retirees, survivalists, immigrants, farmers, religious folks of all stripes and not many more sheriff’s deputies than policed the vast area in Strawl’s day. Thanks to Lonesome Animals, I feel better prepared to start writing my own version of a western.