"The Big Both Ways", Alaska, canning factories, chase, crime, economy, Historical Fiction, Inland Passage, John Straley, labor, logging, murder, noir, Northwest Coast, on-the-run, reading, suspense, The Depression, unionizing
God, was this ever a deeply absorbing read that totally transcended its gangster/suspense genre, a genre I rarely go for. What I wanted was a tightly structured crime story. This was well beyond that.
It reads easily as popular fiction, but the mood and characters hold echoes of John Dos Passos’ classic Depression era novel USA, and its book-long chase with societal implications recalls Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the epic of personal lives and the French Revolution. (The Fugitive follows the same story structure of innocents running from unjust legal pursuit, but its focus is on the chase; it could be happening anywhere for any reason.)
Using geography, social conflict and the economic state of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest and on to Alaska, the unpredictable chase runs up the Northwest Coast into the tricky Inland Passage — known as the Big Both Ways for its currents.
The narrative itself follows three odd (but oddly sympathetic) people on the run – a man, a woman and her niece. She’s a wonderful character, a rude, radical female labor organizer, with her bright young niece; he is an honest, honorable and angry, 30-ish logger, whose friend’s on the job death has just caused him to opt out of job, and mindset. When he stumbles across the first two having car trouble, he tries to help. Immediately events begin rolling like loose logs down a slope, or a body out of a trunk, which is what he finds in their car. In classic noir structure, he gets caught in their troubles – with crime syndicates, labor thugs, the law.
Their flight choices narrow to the challenge of the physically and strategically punishing Inland Passage. Rowing every unexpected, blistering, flooding and threatening moment of the journey with them is riveting. Not only do they know nothing about “messing about in boats”; the peculiar geography, people and customs of the Passage are totally alien.As are the inevitable myths and cultures of such isolated areas. Ranging from mad hermits to raging conservative to outright criminals, they are equally threatening. And all through this tense action, the story of a time and place just roars through.
The beauty part is how Straley moves around people, era and places with such conviction. The vivid geography- and history-driven plot, the variety of characters who were not the same on the last page as they’d been on the first, and the changed world around them, leave you with an indelible experience.