WA-List » WA-Books: Issue 3

WA-Books: Issue 3

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Review
Issue 3
In this issue we share 3 reviews and mention 8 other books.

WA-Books is WA-List’s glimpse at books — recently published or coming soon — about Washington State and the Northwest spirit it embodies.

Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams.

University of Washington Press. Published: August, 2015. 253 pages. ISBN: 978-0295995045


We enjoyed this book.  It is part history, part engineering, and part field guide to a landscape that no longer exists.  At times it challenges the reader to imagine what Seattle used to look like.  That cognitive exercise isn’t as simple as picturing a pristine environment with trees instead of skyscrapers.  You would also to need to rethink the landscape itself.

Study the old maps and photographs in Too High & Too Steep and you’ll see just how much has changed.  Pioneer Square famously has an underground of ghost sidewalks and storefronts. It may be less-well known that there was a swamp nearby and tideflats farther south.  Seattle’s two stadiums and the industrial hub of the city today stands on ground filled in with sawdust, brick, debris and fill mined elsewhere.  There’s a gouge in the hill where Interstate 90 joins I-5.  Man-made.  The same is true for the Montlake Cut, ship canal, and Chittenden Locks. Lake Washington is nine feet lower than it used be and the major river that used to pour from it in Renton is gone.  It’s difficult to even find the old riverbed now.  A significant downtown hill was shoveled and washed out of existence during several regrade projects over the course of thirty years (see the book’s cover photo).  The modern city of glass and steel looks nothing like the little town Native Americans and pioneers knew in the 1850s.  The land itself would be unfamiliar to them.

Too High & Too Steep might fascinate you even if you were already aware the Underground and the Denny Regrade. As he tells the histories of these topographical rearrangements, author David B. Williams walks to critical places throughout the city and points out the changes and the surviving vestiges of the past.  His descriptions amount to an archeological tour of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The old civil engineering projects still show themselves in forms as varied as sagging pavement downtown and the route of the Burke-Gilman Trail.  “We may have buried Seattle’s earliest topography, but we can never escape its influences,” he writes. “It is sitting below the surface, regularly popping up, reminding us of our origins and, perhaps, keeping us a bit humble.”

Williams also revels in engineering details and in explaining the social, seismic, and environmental impacts which they wrought.  He draws parallels to Seattle’s modern projects like the seawall replacement (originally built in 1934) and the Highway 99 tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct (completed in 1953).

The author takes on a different landscape-changing project in each chapter and offers a variety of maps and illustrations to aide the reader.  You can stand on a Fourth Avenue street corner and visualize the 200 foot hill that used to be there.  You can walk along Jackson Street and know you’re perched above the old tideflats.  Further south you can find the site of the 1874 picnic at which nearly all the city’s residents enthusiastically pitched in to start building their own railroad — one that would cross the water that once covered SoDo.  You might not want to visit Harbor Island at all if you’re worried about earthquakes.

We’re history nuts at WA-List and have long-known about these regrading projects. This, however, is the first full-length book we’ve read solely dedicated to the resurfacing of Seattle. We’re pleased with endeavor.

Shelf Appeal: Seattle residents might enjoy reading stories and seeing images of their re-shaped city.  Fans of urban histories will be awed by what pioneers managed to do with shovels, wagons, and primitive construction equipment, stunned by the ambitious projects those pioneers decided to undertake, and maybe shocked by what they didn’t know or hadn’t considered.

Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir by Colleen Frakes.

Zest Books. Published: September, 2015. 192 pages. ISBN: 9781942186021

PrisonIsland_9781942186021Memories are apt to return when someone revisits her childhood home after a long absence. Colleen Frakes’ journey was prompted by the closing of a prison in 2011.

Both of her parents had worked at prison facilities throughout the Northwest when she and her sister Liz were young. McNeil Island was unique. Not only did it involve a longer stay than her parents’ previous assignments, its geography forced lifestyle changes for the whole family. McNeil Island, “the last prison in the U.S. accessible only by air or sea,” became their isolated home.

Frakes is now an adult living in Seattle. She begins her graphic memoir at a moment when she was working and living in Vermont. Upon hearing that the prison (and access to the island) was closing permanently, she and her family venture back to their “hometown” for a final visit.  The bittersweet trip releases a series of flashbacks as her family rides the ferry and wanders the island.  The illustrated book becomes part travelogue complete with maps.  Frakes and her family try the doors, wander into abandoned buildings, stop by the cemetery, and visit the beach.  At each stop Frakes shares incidents pulled from her memories.  The recollections aren’t full stories; they are merely glimpses of life on an isolated island.  Most are sad; more frustrating than traumatic. One episode recounts her attempt to order pizza and coordinate its delivery. Another tells of a shopping trip to Tacoma that was rushed by the demands of unforgiving ferry schedules and stymied by a store’s need for a street address (which didn’t exist on the island).  Trying to host a sleepover with off-island school friends became even more complicated when a prisoner escaped.  That escape aside, Frakes praises the island for being safer than other potential communities.  It was also abundant with wildlife not often seen on the mainland.

The drawings in Prison Island are expressive and plentiful. The words are few and straightforward. (This would be a very short book if it was not in a graphic format.)  The story is simple and uncomplicated.  There are no significant subplots or flashes of great excitement involved. The book’s value derives from its gentle look back at a unique childhood on a lonely patch of land in Puget Sound. The quiet experiences and observations document something unfamiliar to most of us, even though they happened only a few miles across the water.

Shelf Appeal: Teens who enjoy graphic novels or are interested in reading about someone their age growing up in atypical, socially-remote circumstances will find this book interesting. It may prompt them to consider how they might cope with life on a restricted island and with daily ferry commutes to school.  Locals who grew up and went to school near McNeil Island (which describes this reviewer) may also be intrigued by the brief window into the world of former classmates who had these sorts of experiences.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson.

W.W. Norton & Company. Published: March, 2016. 320 pages. ISBN: 9780393242799


Fifty seven people died during the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens.  That’s a statistic.  The question Steve Olson tackles in his new book Eruption might be summed up this way: what were they doing there?  Didn’t they know the dangers?  Weren’t there roadblocks?  The answers are complicated.  Not all scientists came to the conclusion that an explosive eruption was imminent and Washington’s governor (a scientist herself) was reluctant to redraw the map of danger zones which were already butting up against logging operations. Even the press was getting bored with the volcano that had quieted for a few weeks after awakening with such bluster.  People were dangerously close to Mount St Helens because of politics, economic pressures, grave underestimations of what might happen, and a little impatience on the part of some people wanting to resume their normal lives.

Despite its title and cover, Eruption is a book more about people than geology.  For a short time in the early chapters we wondered if we had the wrong book. A long discussion of Frederick Weyerhaeuser and the founding of his company seemed only mildly and indirectly relevant to a geologic disaster to come 80 years later. But Olson eventually got the story underway and proved that the company’s story was indeed a factor (one of many) in placing people in the harm’s way that sunny May morning.

Olson follows the movements of geologists as they took gas samples and examined seismic charts.  Even those knowing the science best set up observation points that were, in hindsight, too close to danger. The author pins some blame on Dixy Lee Ray, Washington’s governor who had the power to keep more people away by expanding the “red zone” but didn’t.  And with all the warnings about an active volcano muted by the governor and the press, dozens of people wandered in and out of the area each day.  Some worked to earn a paycheck; some were fishing and camping in the woods as they had done many times before. Those people become the principal actors in Eruption.  Their stories, before and during the disaster, make the most interesting parts of the book.  Olson highlights the fates of more than a dozen people simply living their lives in what they assumed to be safe zones. He tells about their whereabouts and activities before and during the eruption.  Some made it out.  Some did not.  We were amazed at the heroic survival skills of people like Clyde Croft, and the dedication of pilots and rescuer workers while the eruption was still underway. With the advantage of hindsight, modern readers can understand how people’s decisions influenced their fates. It wasn’t quite so obvious in 1980.

Shelf Appeal: The eruption of Mt St Helens was a major historical event for the Northwest so this book may be interesting to many people who weren’t in Washington (or alive yet) in 1980. It’s a good account of the eight weeks of surprise, curiosity, caution, impatience, and disaster that hit the area. Fans of the survivor genre may enjoy parts 4 and 5, but those sections may be too brief to satisfy.

Other recent or upcoming book titles:

Lark: Cooking wild in the Northwest by John Sundstrom

Sasquatch Books. Sasquatch Books. To be Published: August, 2016. 304 pages. ISBN: 9781632170705

Boeing (Images of Aviation) by John Fredrickson

Arcadia History Press. To be Published: July, 2016. 128 pages. ISBN: 978-1467116992

Being Cowlitz: How One Tribe Renewed and Sustained Its Identity by Christine Dupres

University of Washington Press. To be Published: June, 2016 (in paperback; originally published September, 2014). 176 pages. ISBN: 9780295995571

Unusual Punishment: Inside the Walla Walla Prison 1970-1985 by Christopher Murray

Washington State University Press. Published: May, 2016. 312 pages. ISBN: 9780874223392

While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Eli Sanders

Viking. Published: February, 2016. 336 pages. ISBN:978-0670015719

This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology by Sarah A. Chrisman

Skyhorse Publishing. Published: November, 2015. 332 pages. ISBN: 9781634502375

Instilling Spirit: Students and Citizenship at Washington State 1892-1942 by William L. Stimson

Washington State University Press. Published: November, 2015. 183 pages. ISBN: 9780874223347

Native Trees of Western Washington: A Photographic Guide by Kevin W. Zobrist

Washington State University Press. Published: December, 2014. 141 pages. ISBN: 9780874223248

Eye of the Explorer: Views of the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey 1853-54 by Paul D. McDermott, Ronald E. Grim, Phillip Mobley

Mountain Press Publishing Company. Published: April, 2010. 238 pages. ISBN: 9780878425600


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