"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. Totally transcended its gangster/suspense genre – a genre I rarely go for. I wanted a tightly structured crime story. This went powerfully beyond that.
It is a tour-de-force of plot as portrait of a troubled society. Throughout the tense action, the story of a time and place – Depression Era America – roars through. It reads easily as popular fiction, but the mood and characters hold echoes of John Dos Passos’ classic Depression era novel USA. Its book-long chase with implications as societal as dramatic, recalls Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that 19th Century epic of personal lives and the French Revolution, from which the musical was created. (The Fugitive of TV and film deftly follows the same story structure of innocents running from unjust legal pursuit, but its focus is only the chase; it could be happening anywhere for any reason.)
This West Coast narrative follows three odd (but oddly sympathetic) people on the run – a man, a woman and her 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. She’s a tough young, radical female labor organizer. And there’s her bright young orphaned niece. When he stumbles across the two having car trouble, he tries to help, and events begin rolling as fast and dangerously as loose logs down a slope, or a body out of a trunk – which is exactly what he finds in their car. In classic noir structure, he is an innocent caught up in their unsuspected troubles – crime syndicates, labor thugs, the law, the hell of fishing-factory camps, the hell of nature.
Running up the Pacific coast from the law and killers, their flight choices narrow to the challenge of the Big Both Ways – the physically and strategically punishing Inland Passage, filled not with only natural, but human threats.
It is riveting rowing every unexpected, blistering, flooding and threatening moment of the journey with them. They are not only ignorant of “messing about in boats”; the peculiar geography, people and customs of the Passage are totally, vengefully, alien. As are the peculiar myths and cultures of such isolated areas. Threats range from mad hermits to raging conservatives (not such unfamiliar types in our day), to criminals.
The beauty part for a reader is how Straley moves around people, era and places with such conviction. The vivid geography- and history-driven plot, the changed world around them, and the variety of characters who are not the same on the last pages as they’d been on the first, leave you with an indelibly rich experience.