What would you do if you were the single dad of a seven-year-old daughter and you truly believed the world was ending? Not with fire or ice, not with a nuclear bang, but slowly, failure by failure, going to hell.
This is the premise of Jonathan Evison’s new and finest novel, Legends of the North Cascades. Evison is a consistently wonderful writer. His books are friendly, warm. His prose is clear, smart, insightful. He takes on big issues like infidelity, poverty, and abuse, but never in a ponderous way.
Legends of the North Cascades is a darker effort. There’s an edge, a bite to this novel. Times are bad and the future is bleak.
Dave Cartwright returns from three tours in Iraq to his small town in Washington State and a job at Terminix. He is no longer a high school football star. He’s not a team player. He’s not good in the clinch. He’s disillusioned and finds it almost impossible to keep his life together. He and his wife, Nadene, the mother of his daughter, Bella, have a troubled marriage. After one fight, she drives off and dies in an accident. Dave would be lost if not for the peace (of sorts) he finds hiking in the Cascade Range nine miles outside town.
On one of these hikes, he finds a cave, and soon he has decided to set up camp there—with Bella, of course, in tow.
“And what was left for a child down there but a world that would likely forsake her,” Evison writes, “a world that would wring the wonder and humanity right out of her, as it sought to reduce her life force to an algorithm?”
Later, Dave explains his thinking to his brother: “There’s nothing left for her here. Nothing but sickness, and greed, and useless outrage.”
Evison writes Dave so well, his aching memories of Iraq and football and the promising future he thought would be his. It’s a heartbreaking and familiar story told with fresh intimacy. Dave’s relationship with Bella is conflicted and believable. He is coming unhinged, but still protective and concerned. As readers, we understand the logic of his decisions even if we don’t agree. We know he wants the best for his daughter, and there are moments when Evison makes us see the decision to move to the cave as reasonable, even enviable, with Dave creating a life of imagination and self-reliance. Threatening this utopia are a lack of food, freezing temperatures, and the inevitability of winter with its snow.
Evison intersperses the narrative of Dave and Bella with other perspectives to reveal what the town is thinking. These people include a teacher, the librarian, the woman who works at the local diner, and the high school football coach. In less skillful hands, the device could be an intrusion, but Evison perfectly blends the story lines, using them to offer bits of background. Legends of the North Cascades reads like a thriller and a twisted parenting guide as well as a commentary on the disappointments and perils and infrequent joys of modern life.
There have been more than a few stories of parents, usually fathers, taking their children away from civilization. The Swiss Family Robinson, The Mosquito Coast, and Peter Rock’s My Abandonment—which inspired the film Leave No Trace—all explore the conviction that the trappings of society are detrimental to children and families.
What makes Legends of the North Cascades exceptional is Bella. She is precocious and dreamy and very much a real child, as opposed to an adult’s idea of one. She loves her father fiercely and supports him, but she also slips into consuming visions of S’tka, a pregnant member of an ancient tribe.
Is this a memory from a previous life? Is it a reverie, or a heightened bit of imaginative play? Before her death, Bella’s mother recounted many stories of the first people living in the mountains back when they were covered in ice and snow. They survived thanks to the bison and the woolly mammoth, the “giants,” and suffered when the animals began to fight one another and went extinct.
“So, when the world changed,” Bella asks her father, “what do you think happened to the ice people?” When he tells her they adapted, she asks what that means. “It means they changed their behavior to conform to the new world,” he answers, but she doesn’t understand the word “conform.”
Her dad set his oats aside. “Conform means to follow the rules, baby.”
“In their case, the rules of the natural world.”
Dave’s resignation reflects the collapse of his own hopes, as well as our awareness that to survive he must adapt and even conform.
Evison’s voice has matured in Legends of the North Cascades. Is it because he’s older? Is it current events? Is it the over 7,000 U.S. service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan? Whatever the reason, his writing here is deeper, darker, and more fatalistic than in his earlier work.
This is a book that made me worry. This is a book that made me think.•