I just posted a new piece on WritingtheNorthwest.com. It’s about a 1917 profile of Portland, Oregon, in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly. Called “Portland the Spinster,” the article suggests the city is run by a handful of conservative FFPs (First Families of Portland) who lord it over the later arrivals.
I love reading other people’s views of places I love, and I had some fun writing about this one. You’ll find my post here.
I thought it was going to be behind a paywall, but the WC editors have made it available to anyone. Here’s an excerpt:
One of the trickiest things to do is balance what you feel is true after all of your research with fidelity to what you actually know. Given that a biography is usually based on years of research and a memoir on years of knowing the people around you, it is easy to believe you know what your subject’s perspective on something would be even if she never stated it. The danger in this is we never truly know what a person might have thought or felt. People surprise us all the time. We even surprise ourselves.
When James Delmage Ross died suddenly on March 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt mourned his passing by telling the country it had lost “one of the greatest Americans of our generation,” a man whose “successful career and especially his long service in behalf of the public interest are worthy of study by every American boy.”
Yet “J. D.,” as he was called by everyone who knew him—from the president to senators to children in his neighborhood—is virtually unknown today. Even in Seattle, where he was once the city’s most powerful—and popular—figure, those who recognize his name know it only because a dam and lake on the Upper Skagit River were dedicated to him.
In the Depression years, however, as the nation suffered the aftermath of predatory practices by private companies, Ross became known across the land as a tireless advocate for publicly-owned electrical power. FDR held him in such high regard, he chose him to sit on the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep tabs on the country’s private power companies, and then to serve as the first superintendent of the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the most important strategic positions in the years leading up to World War II.
By then, Ross had built Seattle City Light into one of the world’s model municipally-owned power systems and championed changes to both the production and distribution of electricity that reduced power rates to a fraction of what they had once been. He had also toured the country for years, making the case for public control over the nation’s electrical grid.
If the country had listened to him—or he had lived longer—there’s no doubt our power system would be in much better shape than it is today and people everywhere would understand FDR’s words of praise.
A self-taught electrical engineer who rose from humble beginnings to become the ideal civil servant and a close friend of the 20th century’s most powerful president, Ross is the kind of figure whose story—and example—we need today. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing the first biography to ever be written of him.
My work on Ross is being supported, in part, by the Oregon Historical Society’s 2022 Donald J. Sterling Senior Research Award in Pacific Northwest History. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting more about my finds in the months of research I’ve already done, as well as updates as the research and writing continue.
If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook or check this site in the coming days, you’ll see images from Ross’s hometown of Chatham, Ontario, once known as the Black Mecca because it served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad. His journey from Chatham to Seattle began in 1897 when he walked—walked!—from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Klondike gold fields after a doctor told him his lungs were failing and he needed more exercise.
The other night my wife and I re-watched “Ruby in Paradise,” the 1993 Victor Nunez film starring a 25-year-old Ashley Judd. We didn’t remember anything about the movie except that we’d like it the first time. And we liked it just as much this time.
What struck me most about the story of a naive woman who leaves her backwoods Tennessee home to make a new life on the Florida shore is how much the writer and director trust the characters and situation to develop and carry the story’s conflict and emotional weight.
There’s one incident of sexual harassment and Judd’s Ruby has consensual sex, but otherwise the movie is refreshingly free of the violence that substitutes for conflict, gratuitous sex that takes the place of emotional content, and addiction that stands in for personal peril in movie after movie, TV show after TV show, and even book after book today.
The movie is also free of the shallow values and empty ambitions of so much “entertainment” today, in which glitz and power seem to be the only things anyone desires anymore.
As a result, the viewer is able to invest emotionally in the hardships and triumphs of a young woman with modest ambitions trying to become her own woman in a world where that isn’t easy.
For many years, Sylvia and I have been spending part of each summer in the San Juan Islands, on land her parents bought back in the 1960s. We just returned from our latest sojourn there. The land contains two small cabins, one of which began as her family’s tent platform and I use now as a writing studio, which sounds much loftier than the space deserves.
The cabin land is what they call high-bank waterfront, which means there’s a beach below but it’s a long ways down. The cabins are nestled into a forest of mostly Douglas-firs and grand firs, with a sprinkling of lodgepole pine, hemlock, and alder. There are other cabins nearby, but only one that is close and it is generally vacant except in the summer.
When we’re on the island, we live a simple life close to nature, with eagles, kingfishers, and Great Blue herons winging by, seals and otters splashing in the waves, and deer grazing on the oceanspray. Although there is a village on the island, we rarely go there. When we do, it feels as if we’re reentering civilization. But of course we use the internet to stay connected from the cabins.
I mention all of this now because I recently completed a memoir about the time Sylvia and I spent a full year up there, during a sabbatical from teaching at Portland State University.
It was a tumultuous year during which my mother died, Sylvia’s mother faded into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and we faced a series of hardships on and off the island. It was also a transformative year, in which the hardships themselves gave me new vision and strength.
I’m in the process of looking for a publisher for the book now and thinking I might post short selections from it in the weeks ahead, as well as some of the pictures I’ve taken of island life.
For now, here are a couple more shots from this summer:
The latest post on WritingtheNorthwest.com, my new website dedicated to writing about the Pacific Northwest, is my review of a strange new novel from the always-interesting Portland author Peter Rock. Here’s a part of the review:
In his last two novels—2019’s The Night Swimmers and this year’s Passersthrough (both published by Soho Press)—Rock has used a spare, allusive style to focus closely on a small number of characters in a limited situation while suggesting that there is more going on around them than they or the reader can know, some of it possibly supernatural.
This approach can create a feeling of disorientation, a sense that you’re not understanding something important to the story. But if you release your mind from the need to be certain of everything at every moment, the mood and mystery can take over, allowing you to immerse yourself in Rock’s precise and often beautiful evocations of places, experiences, and sensations.
New on WritingtheNorthwest.com: my review of the 2022 memoir RED PAINT: THE ANCESTRAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A COAST SALISH PUNK by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, a prime example of a welcome surge in new Indigenous writing.
The essay is full of sharp observations of the NW environment by a native Iowan, and the book takes you on trips of discovery to other places too: the Pine Ridge Reservation, the backwoods of Ontario, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Midwest backroads.
I spent the past week and a half leading a workshop with this incredibly talented and openly loving group of writers. Together, they were the embodiment what we need right now: creative people supporting and encouraging one another in an increasingly harsh and fearful world. #collegevilleinstitute, #vortexesoflove