PULITZER Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard is like a force of nature. She is, like one of the children in her first novel, "The Living," "full of tornado juice."
If you pick up the book to read a few pages, it picks you up and carries you above the 200-foot Douglas firs and icy Mount Baker, which glistens as she says like "masses of glowing opal," and drops you into the dense forests of Puget Sound in the last half of the 19th century.
When I heard that Dillard had written a novel, I wondered how this woman who writes so personally and vividly about everything she sees around her in nature would create a work of fiction.
A passage from "The Living" hints at how she went - as writer Eudora Welty put it - "from nonfiction to fiction, from north to south." Here is her description of taking a side-wheel steamer from Bellingham Bay through Deception Pass:
"... John Ireland, piloting the rail, saw that there were two passages between the forested cliffs. In both, white foam swirled in whirlpools; the current was against them. The captain chose the wider channel.... They entered the foaming slot and the wind tore his hair. The gray and brown rock walls high overhead cast a chill shade. The current was as fast as the wind; it surged against the hull, rattled the deck, and splashed the passengers and freight.... When the walls crushed the steamer, the hissing
whirlpools in the current would carry them under the sea....
"At once, the deck's trembling doubled and the wheels slowed. The red madrone trees they had passed now reappeared, and cliffs loomed, and John Ireland saw himself sliding backwards, and the world receding....
"Ireland watched the captain seize [the slabs of bacon] in both hands and throw them whole into the fire box to stoke the boiler. Black smoke billowed from the stack, and the boiler roared as if it would burst. The deck groaned; the wheels churned and bit in. The boy's heart pounded in the racket while the balance of forces shifted. Now the rock walls slid back over the stern and delivered them into the wide and lighted world in perfect silence, in a glassy calm, on water hushed and pale as the sky."
This selection, which would give either Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville a run for his money, is the essence of Dillard's style in this big, episodic saga of pioneer families settling the Northwest area near four linked communities on Bellingham Bay.
The white pioneers from the East and the Indian and Chinese families who call them all "Bostons" are put under her microscope. She observes them as carefully as she would June bugs, writing in the third person about the tangle of families. I could have used one of those old-fashioned family genealogy graphs at the beginning of the book.
Most of the characters are expressively drawn, memorable, but Dillard doesn't often get inside their hearts. One exception is Minta Honer, whose husband was killed in a river logjam the month before two of her small children perished in a fire that destroyed their home. Grieving Minta had to be reminded she still had one child living.
"The Living" has a quality that reminds me of a documentary, for instance "The Civil War" TV series - rather than a feature film or epic novel like "Gone with the Wind." Some barrier divides Dillard and her characters; no tears here. But perhaps such barriers will disappear with her next novel, and the writing in this one makes you hope fervently that there will be a next one soon.
Readers should be warned that dark patches of violence crop up throughout the book, some of it documented by Dillard's research into the area's history. Death hangs like a vulture in the air in parts of this book, dealing as it does with people who are hacking out a life in the savage wilderness.
Through this book, Dillard carries on deep arguments on the nature of God; man's relationship to Him; death and life; and prayer as a constant in the daily lives of many of the people she writes about. Minta in her grief clings to a Tennyson poem that was a creed to her: "O living will that shall endure/ When all that seems shall suffer shock/ Rise in the spiritual rock,/ Flow thro' our deeds and make them pure .../ with faith that comes of self-control."
Sometimes it seems as though Dillard's novel focuses on death, like James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead." But when you finish this novel, it is the living you remember best - as she has titled her book.