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Sunday, July 1, 2001 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Getting a read on Seattle

If you're looking for a history of the city, you'll have to look pretty hard. Not much has been documented: but here are some ideas.

By Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

When I arrived at this newspaper three decades ago, I asked a crusty, gray-haired editor what I should read to learn about my newly adopted city. He handed me a dog-eared copy of "Skid Road."

OK. What else?

"That's it, Kiddo."

Not much has changed. Fifty years after its publication, Murray Morgan's sprightly, anecdotal history of Seattle tops most local lists of essential reading about the Emerald City and its soggy corner of the continent.

After Skid Road, however, there is little agreement on local required reading. Witness the various lists offered here today.

Some recommend Roger Sale's short history, "Seattle Past to Present." Some rave about Betty MacDonald's comic memoir, "The Egg and I," which is actually about her experiences with a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula.

Still others quickly move into regional books by writers from places such as Oregon or Montana - nice places, but simply not Seattle.

Which leads one to ask: Does Seattle have its own literature? As the city prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday, what belongs on its reading list? Whatever happened to The Great Seattle Novel?

"Mmmmm. Let me think about that," says John Findlay, who runs the University of Washington's Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. Like most others, he eventually concedes: The pickin's are slim.

This from a professor whose department just launched a series of summertime lectures on Northwest literature.

Seattle certainly has no literacy problem. We have great bookstores that appear to sell plenty of books. We have lots of libraries, each with its loyal clientele. We have produced and attracted countless successful writers, ranging from Richard Hugo and Mary McCarthy to Tom Robbins and Jonathan Raban.

Alas, most of these writers have spent their time here writing about places like Montana.

"We're still waiting for it," says local writer and publisher David Brewster. "Maybe it's because we're a place blessed with a good economy and a healthy environment - too much contentment and not enough human tragedy to inspire that great novel."

Part of the problem is the publishing business itself, he says. Major publishers are wary of regional novels. They want broader appeal, a Seattle novel that will sell in Des Moines, Iowa.

Still, this hasn't prevented the publication of important novels by and about cities ranging from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Leonard Garfield, director of the Museum of History & Industry, suggests that Seattle's literature may take more visual forms. Perhaps Seattle's popular culture is better reflected by film and television, from "Here Come the Brides" to "Sleepless in Seattle."

But the conventional wisdom goes like this: Seattle is too young, too raw, too transient. The city has grown and changed too quickly to produce a substantial body of literature.

But Seattle has generated its share of books, mostly nonfiction, that deserve our attention, and which promise to increase the reader's understanding of this place. With that in mind, here's my list of essential reading about Seattle, much of it borrowed from better-read people:

1. "Skid Road" by Murray Morgan: Yes, it's a half-century old and makes no mention of Microsoft or Starbucks, the Kingdome or Ken Griffey Jr. "But I don't think it's dated," argues writer Jonathan Raban. "It's just one of the very best informal, intimate histories anywhere." If you read one book about Seattle, this is it.

2. "Seattle Past to Present" by Roger Sale. If you read another, try this one, preferably back-to-back with Skid Road. It's the same city and the same history seen through the lens of an essayist and college English professor. Sale is less amusing, more moody and serious.

3. "Passage to Juneau" by Jonathan Raban. It only begins in Seattle, before taking the reader on a voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska. But Raban captures his adopted city's links to the sea, to Alaska, and to the idea of The North.

4. "Journals of George Vancouver." The crotchety Englishman was a sailor, certainly not a stylist, and his observations of the Northwest landscape in 1792 are strictly prosaic, especially his daily obsession with latitude and chronometer readings. But Vancouver's first impressions of an unspoiled Puget Sound are essential reading. Alas, the only version now in print is W.K. Lamb's exquisite four-volume set, published by the Hakluyt Society, for $150 or more. (UW Press, where are you?) If that's too steep for you, check the library or the Internet for copies of Edmond Meany's 1907 version, the long out-of-print "Vancouver's Discovery of Puget Sound."

5. "The Egg and I" by Betty MacDonald. The classic, wonderfully readable story of a Seattle couple's adventures running a Kitsap County chicken farm. Years ago, Raban's English grandmother kept a copy on her bookshelf. It's as delightful today as when published in 1945.

6. "The Natural History of Puget Sound Country" by Arthur Kruckeberg. What he lacks as a writer, Kruckeberg more than makes up in the sweep of his knowledge and passion for Mother Nature's handiwork in and around Seattle. The respected botanist's text is well-illustrated and truly essential.

7. "Mountain in the Clouds" by Bruce Brown. The first, and still the best, of many literary laments for the demise of Puget Sound salmon runs.

8. "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson. It's not exactly Seattle, but close enough. Guterson's moody novel evokes the grays and greens of the Puget Sound landscape and psyche.

9. "Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State." The huge 1941 guidebook, produced by some 200 writers working for the Depression-era Federal Writers Project, remains arguably the best ever. The guided tour of 1930s Seattle provides a glimpse at the city before it was utterly transformed by war, Boeing, cheap Columbia River hydropower and urban sprawl. Long out of print, it can still be found in libraries or for $25 to $50 at used bookstores or online.

10. "Nisei Daughter" by Monica Sone. A short, affectionate memoir of growing up Japanese-American in the 1930s and 1940s, including her time in the internment camps. Try reading this back-to-back with Mary McCarthy's recollections ("How I Grew" and "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood") of a very different Seattle during the same period.

11. Richard Hugo. The Seattle poet's work is accessible even to a hack like me, who wouldn't know a metaphor from the HMS Pinafore. But poetic persons suggest "White Center" or Hugo's autobiography, "The Real West Marginal Way."

12. "Indians in the Making" by Alexandra Harmon. I wait anxiously for Seattle writer David Buerge's biography of Chief Seattle, still a work in progress. Meanwhile, this recent volume from a UW professor is by far the most readable study of local Native American culture.

13. "The Living" by Annie Dillard. I know it's based in Whatcom County, but Dillard's grim tale of life and death in the 19th-century forests of Puget Sound might just as well have happened in pioneer Seattle. Given our dearth of novels, let's claim this one as our own.

14. Mysteries by J.A. Jance, Earl Emerson or G.M Ford. I'm not a mystery fan, but their Seattle-based tales have a loyal following. My favorite title: Ford's "Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?"

Here are lists solicited from local writers and historians:

Jonathan Raban, English-born travel writer transplanted to Seattle:

Murray Morgan, "Skid Road."

Theodore Roethke, "Far Fields" (poetry).

Mary McCarthy, "How I Grew."

Vancouver's journals.

Wayne Suttles, "Coast Salish Essays."

Steven Brown, "Native Visions."

James Swan, "The Northwest Coast."

Betty McDonald, "The Egg and I."

Ivan Doig, "Winter Brothers."

Richard Hugo, poetry.

Lorraine McConaghy, Museum of History and Industry:

Murray Morgan, "Skid Road."

Walt Crowley, "Rites of Passage."

Arthur Kruckeberg, "Natural History of Puget Sound."

Charles LeWarne, "Utopias on Puget Sound."

John Okada, "No-No Boy."

Diane and Cory Olson, "Black Diamond: Mining the Memories."

Roger Sale, "Seattle Past to Present."

Monica Sone, "Nisei Daughter."

Quintard Taylor, "The Forging of a Black Community."

James R. Warren, "King County and Its Emerald City Seattle."

Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times book critic:

Murray Morgan, "Skid Road."

Arthur Kruckeberg, "Natural History of Puget Sound Country."

Bruce Barcott, "The Measure of a Mountain."

David Laskin, "Rains All the Time: A Connoisseur's History of Weather in the Pacific Northwest."

R.H. Thomson, "That Man Thomson."

Jeffery Karl Ochsner, "Shaping Seattle Architecture."

Karen Joy Fowler, "Sarah Canary."

Betty MacDonald, "Anybody Can Do Anything."

Matthew Stadler, "The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee" and "Allan Stein."

Jonathan Raban, "Hunting Mr. Heartbreak."

Nancy Pearle, Seattle Public Library:

Lydia Minatoya, "The Promise of Beauty."

John Okada, "No-No Boy."

Annie Dillard, "The Living."

Tim Egan, "The Good Rain."

David Guterson, "Snow Falling on Cedars."

Raban, "Passage to Juneau."

Ruth Kirk, "Sunrise to Paradise: The Story of Mount Rainier National Park."

J.A. Jance, any of her J.P. Beaumont mysteries, based in Seattle.

Earl Emerson, any of his mysteries, all set in Seattle.

Mark Jenkins, "All Powers Necessary and Convenient."

John Findlay, U.W. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest:

Murray Morgan, "Skid Road."

Roger Sale, "Seattle: Past to Present."

Alexandra Harmon, "Indians in the Making."

Richard Hugo, "The Real West Marginal Way."

Monica Sone, "Nisei Daughter."

John Okada, "No-No Boy."

Victor Steinbrueck, "Seattle Cityscape."

Quintard Taylor, "Forging of a Black Community."

Frances McCue, director of Hugo House (writers' center):

Richard Hugo, "The Real West Marginal Way."

John Okada, "No-No Boy."

Charles D'Ambrosio, "The Point and Other Stories."

Matthew Stadler, "The Sex Offender."

Rebecca Brown, "Gifts of the Body."

Richard Hugo, "White Center."

David Wagoner, "Travelling Light: Collected Poems."

Related info:

Related links
Museum of History & Industry
The Washington State Historical Society
National Register of Historic Places
UW archives
Audio links
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