Donahue book explores Washington State’s literary history
Methow Valley author Peter Donahue’s latest book, “Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers: Washington’s Lost Literary Legacy,” brings to life Washington state’s rich literary history.
Through detailed biographies and excerpts from out-of-print publications, the reader discovers a sense of place through the eyes of writers forgotten by time.
At under 250 pages the book may not be voluminous, but the writing packs a powerful dose of information delivered with a page-turning passion. A prolific writer, Donahue is the author of numerous novels, short stories and articles. He lives in the Methow Valley with his wife, Susan, and teaches in Omak at Wenatchee Valley College.
A New Jersey native, Donahue discovered Washington state at the end of a cross-country drive delivering a car. After graduating from high school, he slung a backpack over his shoulder and returned to the Northwest, where he met Susan. Life, marriage and career opportunities carried the couple away from the area, but as Donahue delved into his writing, he found his mind returning to the foggy shores and snowy crags of Washington state.
As research for his second novel, “Clara and Merritt,” Donahue scoured Seattle Times articles from the 1930s and ’40s. He discovered notices of publications set in Washington state. He made note of these older novels and set out to find them. His perusal of newspaper archives revealed more publications, which led to more searches at used book stores.
At about the same time, Donahue heard an interview with an author and literary scholar who opined that unlike the South, the Northwest was too young to have a literature of its own. From his own research, Donahue knew this to be untrue: The Northwest has a great history of written work, it has just fallen into obscurity. Donahue took this as a challenge to find distinctive Northwest literature through the 19th and early 20th century, and bring the authors and their work back into focus.
Donahue contacted the Washington State Historical Society and offered up his essays on Northwest writers to “Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History.” His work grew into a regular column called “Retrospective Reviews.” The column lasted almost 14 years. Those essays, along with excerpts from the publications, form “Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers.”
The title comes from a quote by author Nard Jones in his 1947 portrait of Washington state, “Evergreen Land:” “I remain unregenerate, a Salmon Eater, an Apple Knocker, a Rain Worshipper, a Sagebrusher, and a Whistle Punk from the Big Woods. In brief, a Pacific Northwesterner.”
The authors’ stories
Donahue follows a concise formula to introduce nearly 50 authors and their works, spanning two centuries. Scenes of a developing literary body are captured through novels, poems, nature writing and memoirs.
A surprising number of women authors are featured in “Salmon Eaters to Sagebrushers.” Donahue explains that this was reflective of Northwest literature at the time, and perhaps also why the writings fell into obscurity. Women tend to write memoirs, poetry and historical fiction — called “historical romance” at the time. The memoir and historical romance genres fell out of popularity during the modernist era.
To develop the biographies, Donahue sought out living relatives of the authors, delved into university archives, and poured over newspaper reviews. His diligent research provides fascinating context into personal experiences that shaped the authors work.
For example: while she was writing, Christine Quintasket, aka Mourning Dove, was also hard at work in Omak orchards. Archie Binns drew heavily on his sailing experiences to create “psychological realism and high adventure.” Martha Hardy served as a fire lookout near Mount Rainier during WWII when women filled jobs traditionally held by men. Melvin Levy was blacklisted for his leftist politics, and ended his career writing several episodes of “Charlie’s Angels.”
Donahue used three points of criteria in choosing authors to include in his essays. In a recent interview, he tapped off the points on his fingers: “The works had to focus on Washington in a meaningful way. They had to be out of print and no longer studied. And lastly, the works had to have literary merit.”
All of Donahue’s selections exhibit the author’s intimate knowledge of place — covering terrain, people and history in a broad context. As he read newspaper reviews of the books, Donahue said he realized, “People were reading these works to understand where they lived, and learn about the region.”
In the vast majority of works, authors did not whitewash history. Racism is portrayed in both the time period people lived, and also with the historical perspective of past injustices. Author Allis McKay describes the personal calling of regional writers as, “to bring a reader to the Northwest and help him see it, feel it, and smell it.”
Donahue’s hope is that “Salmon Eaters and Sagebrushers” will raise awareness of the Northwest’s body of literature, and inspire people to look deeper for more writings.