Local writer creates portrait of Oregon

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My first impression of George Venn’s book, “Beaver’s Fire,” was one of a depth and range that encompasses more than its ostensible scope of a portfolio of the region’s past four decades.

Poetry, fiction, non-fiction and photography intermingle to produce a portrait of Eastern Oregon and the Northwest through a literary lens. Venn is involved in many of these pieces as writer, editor, researcher or participant in some fashion, and his style and aesthetic permeate the collection.

The title refers to a Nez Perce myth about beavers stealing fire from the Pine Trees and gifting it to all the other trees. And so, with this volume, Venn gives the fire of the literary spirit of the Northwest to its readers, writers and artists. Each piece draws the reader more deeply into a contemplation of space, place and the way in which writers (poets in particular, it seems), seek to represent that space, their experience and relationship to it, and the experiences of those who have lived there, past and present.

The collected pieces are organized in reverse order by date of publication. The topics move through time and around the globe while firmly rooted in the Northwest, a region Venn defines as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Fred Hill’s photography and letters take us to World War II and the Philippines, C.E.S. Woods’ diary takes us to the 1880s from Sitka, Alaska, to Montana, and author interviews, workshops and symposiums range throughout Oregon. The collection is also a reminder of how personal documents, letters and diaries may become historical records and literary treasures.

Not only a collection of pieces from the Northwest, the works themselves reflect on the writing and state of literature in the Northwest. They reinforce the notion that literature is about, “the relationships between people and the space around them,” according to a 1976 essay, “The Search for Sacred Space in Western American Literature.”

The works continually contribute to and reinforce Venn’s premise that regional is not “provincial” but a “microcosm.” One of the final pieces in the collection, St. John’s essay emphasizes Venn’s argument, “we seem to equate cultural achievement only with large populations.” This repetition indicates to me that Venn believes these issues are relevant 40 years later.

The power of a regional collection, as a native Oregonian, has an emotional as well as an intellectual effect. Marsha Hill keeping Fred’s hundreds of letters, Wood’s disgust with the violence of the Nez Perce war and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s passion for free speech were deeply moving. This link also revealed my own biases about Oregon literature and history: It’s not interesting, it doesn’t really exist outside of Ursula Le Guin, I’m sick of reading about the Oregon Trail.

This portfolio is a reminder of the scope of Oregon literature, of the collections already in existence, and of the ongoing need to tend to both past and future writers and creators. My to-read list has expanded.

Many of the pieces noted the lack of representation of Northwest writers in national collections, while remembering that William Stafford was the most-read poet of his day.

This tendency grew a bit wearisome, and made me wonder if emphasizing the past neglect of Northwest literary contributions, especially those of Eastern Oregon, promotes the creation of more, or is it simply a tantrum? Where do we look forward, to what current and recent and future writers and works do we look to continue our journey in this place we call home?

Do we still suffer from the tendency Venn describes as “outsiders must praise regional artists before their own people will claim them,” as was the case in his 1973 lecture,
“The Literature of Eastern Oregon?”

Of the six pieces from the 2000s, only two were on contemporary works, and one of those was a symposium. The other four focused on historical figures or myths, but I felt there was a lack of recently created works.

My curiosity has been piqued. Perhaps then, Venn has accomplished his goal: I want to read more of the texts referenced in this portfolio, I want to seek out newer regional works, and I have a deeper appreciation for the literature and history of where I live. This is a wonderful collection to which one may return again and again.

Please note, I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Rose Peacock is a technician at Cook Memorial Library in La Grande.

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