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Recent books about our region

By Colleen Stinchcombe

Local authors are illuminating the issues, big and small, that our state — and planet — is facing.

The River That Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish

by B. J. Cummings
July 2020, University of Washington Press
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Seattleites might know that the modern Duwamish River flows north from its southern tributary, the Green River, into Seattle’s Elliott Bay. They may know that the river was declared a Superfund site in 2001 and that cleanups continue to this day. But the river’s story begins well before it started serving in its current capacity as a transportation canal. Author B. J. Cummings traces the water’s long relationship to the Duwamish Tribe, many of whom still live near the river’s banks today, as well as to the white settlers, whose desire for farmland reshaped the river’s course into an almost unrecognizable form. The story of the waterway reveals much about Western hubris and its consequences. “Whether you live in my hometown of Seattle or in Chicago, Newark, Mobile, Des Moines, or Los Angeles, you have a river with a story, and that story resembles the one in this book,” Cummings writes.

Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing from One Life to Another

by Kim Brown Seely
September 2019, Sasquatch Books
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With their sons imminently leaving home for college, Seattle locals Kim Brown Seely and her husband, Jeff, decide to buy a broken boat and sail it north to Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. “You couldn’t find a less-likely candidate to sign up for this sailing thing. I am petite; hate to be wet; don’t do well in cold; have arms as thin as toothpicks and the mechanical aptitude of a house plant,” Seely writes. What Seely and her husband lack in experience, they make up for in adventurous spirit, as chronicled in this heartfelt memoir. Seely reacts with an admirable levity to dangerous near-misses, and together they set new compass points for their lives in light of their empty nest.

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Vera Violet: A Novel

by Melissa Anne Peterson
February 2020, Counterpoint Press
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Vera Violet hails from an economically bereft former logging town in rural Washington. For the families living there, there’s the life they had before, when good jobs were abundant, and the life they had after. “Drugs crept up on our backs and took over quickly,” our narrator explains. Bills can’t get paid, the hillsides are as barren as the rivers are empty of salmon. White supremacy starts to spread among those left in the town. Young Vera Violet is buoyed along by a close-knit group of friends and the love of her life, until a series of tragic events force her to flee to St. Louis, Missouri, where the effects of poverty and disenfranchisement are replicated in the elementary school where she takes a job. “The gas company raised their rates. Senior citizens on fixed incomes had trouble paying. Homeless people froze to death,” she says. Though she attempts to improve her students’ lives, she remains haunted by the traumatic circumstances that put her in their lives to begin with. Peterson’s novel is a cutting portrait of what life is like for young people trying to survive economic free fall, interrogating who gets left behind when we exploit our lands and cities at the whims of corporations and at the expense of the already vulnerable.

The Whale Child

by Keith Egawa and Chenoa Egawa
October 2020, North Atlantic Books
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Written and illustrated by siblings Keith and Chenoa Egawa, longtime storytellers and enrolled members of the Lummi Nation, The Whale Child tells the story of a young whale, Shiny, who transforms into a boy in order to alert humans to the troubling changes they’re causing on Earth.  From the moment Shiny steps out of the water, he’s welcomed into the home of a young Coast Salish girl, Alex, and her family. Alex, who still thinks drinking water simply comes from the tap, learns all about the interconnected nature of water and life from Shiny. The two embark on a journey around the world to see how human impact is damaging ecosystems — from plastics trapping marine life to overfishing to water-polluting pesticides. Readers ages 7 to 12 will learn a lot from Shiny and Alex. “Seeing what is bad will make you realize the good you can do,” Shiny says. “Take one smart step in the right direction and the next will come much easier.”

Find these recently published works at your local bookstore or library and add them to your reading pile.

Post Romantic

by Kathleen Flenniken
October 2020, University of Washington Press
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“Instead of Sheep / try counting down years / of the 20th century,” reads the first poem in Post Romantic. Concerned with nostalgia, masculinity, and the state of America, the 2014 Washington State Poet Laureate’s latest collection holds a magnifying glass to the personal and political past to understand how it shapes our present. Some of this counting down is concerned with big ecological turmoil. “The Fukushima 50” imagines workers who stayed behind during the nuclear disaster, “each too ancient and repentant to be killed by radiation.” “Horse Latitudes” considers the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — “a synthetic sea / of flotsam that will outlive us all” — and what could happen if we continue to ignore it: “your secret hurt / that churns and churns and won’t / diminish — a spiral so huge / your mind mutinies and denies it all.” Other poems offer an inward look at childhood and the heyday of men who were “Good at fixing broken flashlights / . . . Good at keeping violent visions private,” as the poem “Letter to Rilke” reads. The nostalgia feels like welcome permission to long for a lost, unnameable thing — whether it was ever real or not — while grappling with, as Flenniken writes, “how uneasily I love America.”

The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon, Modern Science, and a Race to Save the World

by Eric Scigliano, with Dr. Robert Holmes, Dr. Susan Natali, Dr. John Schade, and photographer Chris Linder
September 2019, Mountaineers Books
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Winner of multiple local and national awards, including the 2020 Washington State Book Award for nonfiction, The Big Thaw pairs stunning photographs with stories from frontline Arctic scientists about how melting permafrost may
hasten climate catastrophe — and how critically necessary it is to stop it. While you won’t find simple answers here, the book lends depth to a problem whose alarm is
beginning to sound. And the mini-profiles of a diverse group of scientists make this an inspiring gift for students from all walks of life, or, for that matter, anyone doubting the dedication of scientists or the
importance of their work.