H. L. Davis spins a tale that only a man who had lived through that period of time in Oregon, had picked hops, stacked hay, ridden the outlaw trail and listened to a whole lot of stories in bars could have written.
As a native Oregonian (that’s actually a new paper, not the real name we call ourselves) with ancestors and relatives living across most of the state at one time or another in the past 150 years, I have heard some of these stories from the Willamette Valley about the bums and the hops picker gangs. I’ve seen the coastal range forests and tried hunting them in the deep snow where a man can step off a log and disappear because of the undergrowth, and my grandmother and father told a number of stories about the wild country east of Eugene, OR up in the lakes above Oak Ridge where the McBee’s lived every summer in the early 1900’s picking berries, catching fish and shooting an occasional deer for the pot.
Davis captures the real essence of the young Clay Calvert coming of age, realizing that he is growing up, becoming interested in women, wanting to move away from the authorities who have governed his life up to the moment. As you read the book you begin to understand how Davis’ keen eye for the minutia of detail brought him the accolades and awards as a great writer.
A scene that comes to mind is at the beginning of the book during the flood with Clay Calvert attempting to save a flock of sheep that had decided to follow the leader into the swelling river and drown. Only a man who has seen the floods of the Oregon rivers, been run over by a big old ewe or two, tried to pick up a sodden sheep or been wet to the skin in the Oregon rain can be so eloquent in writing about it.
Another scene in the middle of the book when Clay is picking hops, has a blow-up with his girlfriend, and goes off to camp with an older single woman who plays guitar and is running from the law, captures the hand to mouth existence of many people at that time.
Finally, for those of you who have a spot in your heart for scenes from Lonesome Dove like the hanging of Jake Spoon. Davis’ description of the hanging of Wade Shiveley from the hay stacking boom will strike your heart as to how hangings did occur in those days, sometimes not for what you just did, but because of other things associated with your life outside the law that just finally caught up with you.
It took me a while to get into the swing of the book, the paragraph long sentences, the language that is slow, deliberate and much like the true country folk still speak when they are at home or work, away from the rush of modern Californicated Oregon. You may not love the book, but you’ll enjoy it and know you have read one of the best authors for writing about that period of time in Oregon history by the time you are done.
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