Sometimes a Great Notion.

August 13, 2011 § 4 Comments

When I first moved to Oregon, I asked around about local literature and everyone’s first response was invariably Geek Love. If a novel has any relation to the place where it comes from, Katherine Dunn’s story of a family of circus freaks is pure Portland. Bizarre, irreverent and bewitching, Geek Love keeps it weird.

But Portland doesn’t define Oregon. There’s impenetrable forest, ravenous rivers and mighty mountain beyond the strange city limits and it stretches all the way to the wild Pacific Ocean.

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range… come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting… forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittin bark and silver spruce – the the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir – the actual river falls five hundred feet… and look: opens out upon the fields.

The opening lines of Sometimes a Great Notion pulled me into its pages like ivy curling round a tree stump. Ken Kesey’s words – his story and his characters – wrapped around and through me, utterly compelling and savage and sorrowful.

Sometimes a Great Notion is about a logging family on the Oregon coast who refuse to heed a union strike against a lumber company and continue cutting down trees, incensing the rest of the town. It’s peculiar to this State but it’s also about America and freedom and a man’s right to do whatever he goddamn pleases. It’s about memory and the interpretation of past events. It’s about festering resentment and loyalty and revenge. It’s about finding some space to be in the world.

It was a long read at over seven hundred pages. Fragmented and meandering, with sudden shifts and slow slides in narrating voices, it wasn’t always easy. Nor was it laborious or wearisome. Rather, I felt like I was on an epic but necessary journey into the heart of a very complex, divisive and painful point in Oregon’s history. It often made me gasp and cry and hang my head and sigh.

I loved it.

If I did such things as top tens then this novel would be towering somewhere in that list.

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§ 4 Responses to Sometimes a Great Notion.

  • Karl Drobnic says:

    It was the first Oregon book I read when I moved to Yachats many years ago. The logging scene was still as Kesey relates it in the book, and if anyone wants to get the feel of life on the Oregon coast before the tourists flooded in, this is the book. Kesey was still alive then and often showed up at various local events, just another Oregonian having a good time. Good choice for getting to know Oregon, Deborah, and great book.

    • My husband grew up near Rockaway Beach which is less touristy than Manzanita or Lincoln City, especially during the winter. When I walk around there, I feel like I can catch a glimpse of the kind of town Kesey describes, but it must have been something to be there during those major logging years. Did you ever meet him? He’s a fascinating man, glad to here he was one of the locals!

      • Karl Drobnic says:

        I met him in passing a couple times. I used to have a booth at craft fairs and he’d cruise through sometimes. The logging way of life that he describes died out in the recession of 1982 (a really nasty one) and never came back. The family logging businesses just couldn’t cope anymore and logging went to the big companies. So Kesey’s novel is not only a good read, but very valuable for the accuracy of the descriptions of a vanished way of life. He lived down at Florence when he was preparing to write it and worked with a logger down there.

  • Bob taylor says:

    A great read, and very good on West Coast logging in the Sixties. I was a faller on in B.C at that time and it rings very true.

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