This is not a book most people will find easy to like. It’s slow to start, people seem to be completely oblivious to certain things, and chapters can seem repetitious at best. However, sticking to it should find readers of literary or eco-literary fiction enjoying it.
It’s the late 1970s in the US, and Rich Gundersen, along with his much younger than he wife Colleen and their young son live in a very small town where the economy is almost all logging.
Rich has worked for the Sanderson company forever as a topper (the person who gets to climb to the very tops of trees to cut off branches and/or the actual head of the tree in order to install lines to pull felled trees up the mountain). He has also lasted longer than both his grandfather and father did in this punishing, physical work for the same company. His best friend is Lark, an eccentric old man who worked with Rich’s father – in fact, whose topping of a branch killed Rich’s father when it landed on him fro a couple hundred feet in the air – and who looks out for Rich as he can.
When it’s Rich’s POV, we get a lot of logger jargon, as one would expect from a logger. We also get to know Rich’s dream, which had been his father dream before him: cutting the 24-7, which is not a convenience sore but a redwood that is 24 feet, seven inches in diameter. Without telling Colleen, Rich takes all of their savings, gets a loan, and buys over 700 acres of land that includes the 24-7. It abuts land that Sanderson owns, and Rich thinks that when Sanderson cuts in an access road, Rich will be able to use that as he feels the redwoods on his property, and become wealthy in the process.
Colleen has suffered a miscarriage one of many, the exact number of which she has not told Rich. When it’s her POV, we get a snapshot of her typical day: worrying about Rich. Dealing with her sister Enid and her passel of kids. Colleen’s an amateur midwife, so cannot be blind to the strange things happening in other womens’ pregnancies: stillborns, miscarriages, massive deformities, like half a brain, or no brain, in one case. Many people in the community, including Colleen herself, suffer from random nosebleeds.
Rich and his brother in law shoot a deer who appears to be pregnant, only to find a basketball-sized tumor inside it. Someone loses a calf after it’s born with deformities. Another person’s bees are all killed by the spray.
The company sprays herbicides in the area, to keep pesky weeds at bay where trees are being harvested. It smells slightly of chlorine and when it’s in the water, either directly or via runoff, it’s described as having an oily sheen. (I think this last may refer to including diesel fuel in the mix, to help weight down the spray.)
Issue number one for me: there’s no hint in this small town that anyone picks up on these things being connected. They may not have gone to college, for the most part, but not all of them are idiots.
The book moves back and forth primarily between Rich (now worried about the anti-logging hippies will close down the patch he and his crew are working for Sanderson as well as broaching the quarter million dollar bet he’s made on their future) and Colleen (who seems to be condemned to be condemned to forever driving her sister Enid and her brat pack of kids around and making pancakes or eggs), but we also get chapters from their young son’s POV here and there, making observations the adults never would.
Into this small town, one major industry setting, walks Daniel, Colleen’s high school boyfriend. He now collects water samples from around the area for testing purposes, as not only are the salmon dying, so are other things (like human and bovine babies, born or not, like bees) and it appears that people are also suffering from things (like nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses). other environmental impacts are also present (mudslides from cleared areas, runoff of soil and herbicides into the drinking water).
Once he enters the picture, the book fully transforms into eco-lit. Daniel knows Colleen and her family drinker from the spring that runs near their house, and he wants her to take samples so he can send them off to be tested. She declines, because of course she does: she’s a logger’s wife,and testing the water may reveal things she doesn’t want to see. Eventually, she gives in and starts collecting in secret.
Daniel tells her everything is contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin – AKA dioxin. He’s also been sounding the warning bell around town, and trying to talk to people, only to find doors slammed in his face and his tires slashed, among other things. There’s a scene in the book where the (only) gas station attendant in town refuses to sell him gas.
One couple speaks up about the contaminants in their water and food. They’re quickly ostracized by the rest of the town. Another couple speaks up. They too, get the cold shoulder. There’s even a house belonging to one of the couples that is burned down. Colleen eventually appears at one of the meetings Daniel is hosting. A reporter happens to catch her saying something, and after it’s reported, she and Rich start to get that same cold shoulder. Rich is angry with her; he’d told her to stay out of it. After all, this is their livelihood in danger, and his larger dream as well. Rich gives a passionate speech about how loggers are environmentalists at a town meeting, to which people applaud, but they are still cold toward Rich and Colleen as they leave.
I’ve lived in small towns, and can say the book captures that often claustrophobic feeling of living in the same place, doing the same jobs for generation upon generation. The snubbing and shunning of neighbors is also presented quite well.
We then go speeding toward the end. Rich finds out he didn’t check the fine print on his purchase. But there are a couple of things that bothered me about the end.
One is the deux a machina in relation to one of the larger items in the book. The other is the actual end, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t think, after 400 pages of Rich shown to be a careful, conscientious man, that he would do what he did.
The book could have used a bit of tightening, especially with the repetitive nature of Colleen having to chauffeur Enid and her kids around.
Overall, I found the book to be exceptionally written from a narrative standpoint. We expect to see Rich do all the logging things, and he does. We expect Colleen to be the stay at home mom and look after her child and sister, and she does. There are a number of passages that are a joy to read. The book does give us a good look at an entire town living around and in an environmental nightmare.
4.5 stars out of 5, rounded down to 4 for the issues noted.
Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the reading copy.