The idea of “the West” has loomed large in American history. From the first settlements of the American wilderness by Europeans, “the West” was always the next frontier to discover and settle.
Following the 1890 U.S. census, the director of the census declared that the frontier had closed, based on population density (nowhere was there less than two people per square mile). In 1896, historian Frederick Jackson Turner used that declaration to formulate the so-called “frontier thesis,” that the idea of the frontier was what had given America its special character, and now that the frontier was closed, America would undergo profound changes.
Jonathan Evison’s 2011 novel West of Here is about that idea of the frontier. It’s no coincidence that the book is partially set in 1889-1890, the date for the official closing of the frontier, and 2006, a century later, when the changes that have occurred can be weighed. What Evison also considers is what has not changed – and that is human nature.
The scene is the state of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, a large part of which is today’s Olympic National Park. It is a land of ancient forests and a multitude of rivers and lakes. In 1890, it is relatively unexplored; Washington is still a territory reaching toward statehood. The peninsula is likely America’s last frontier, and it attracts all of what we associate with the frontier – pioneers and explorers, dreamers, saloon keepers and prostitutes, exploiters and charlatans, and social reformers. They are erecting a society on top of the people who were already there – the native American tribes.
Evison develops several story strands for the 1889-1890 period – an expedition to explore the peninsula, a man who dreams of building a dam to power and grow the (fictional) town of Port Bonita, the strange half-white, half-native American boy who doesn’t speak but who’s believed to have visions, and the crusading woman journalist who believes in a radical equality of the sexes.
Interwoven with these stories are the stories of their descendants in 2006 – and little seems to have turned out the way any of the original pioneers expected. The peninsula is still a place of rugged beauty, but Port Bonita teeters on the edge of impoverishment. Looming over the town is the deconstruction of the great dam that once gave the town its future. And there is still a strange native American boy seeing visions.
Much changes, but the landscape and geography endure. People still dream, but their dreams are not of the new frontier.
The story is entirely fictional but based upon extensive research of the frontier period.
Eivson is the author of several novels, including All About Lulu, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, and This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! He lives with his family in Washington State.
West of Here explores the meaning of “the closing of the frontier,” sifting through hopes, dreams, and motives set a century apart. It is a big story, and Evison tells it very well.
Top photograph of Olympic National Park by Peter Lloyd via Unsplash. Used with permission.