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Required Reading: 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest

This round of Required Reading is dedicated to the place we at Powell's Books call home: the great Pacific Northwest. Whether you're from the area or you simply appreciate the region for its beauty, history, or temperament (or legendary bookstore), these titles will give you a more nuanced understanding of this peculiar corner of the U.S.

÷ ÷ ÷


Mink River
by Brian Doyle
Mink River
is Pacific Northwest fiction at its finest. Doyle plunges us head first into the lives of the residents of a soggy, fictional Oregon coast town, Neawanaka. Rich with both Native American and Irish storytelling, Mink River lets us inside the raw, honest lives of ordinary people and makes us see the extraordinary in them. Long after you have read this novel, you will find yourself wondering what the characters are doing now and hoping that all is well in the fictional little town you've come to love.
The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Northwest's very own SFWA Grand Master writes a philosophical novel set in Portland, Oregon. George Orr goes to sleep and awakes in the world of his dreams — still Portland, but... different. Now anytime he goes to sleep, the world is capable of shifting, and no one seems to notice. What is the true world? How does one bear such a gigantic responsibility? Big-idea sci-fi at its finest.
Night Dogs
by Kent Anderson
Night Dogs
is a novel that takes place in Portland in the '70s. James Crumley has called it the best police story he has ever read, and I would have to agree. The dialogue is so strong that it cries out to be filmed by Scorsese à la Taxi Driver. Also, an entire chapter takes place at a Powell's stand-in called The Blue Dolphin.
Jason C.
by Chelsea Cain
is a riveting, intense thriller with amazing characters — Detective Archie Sheridan; Gretchen Lowell, the beautiful yet evil serial killer; and Susan Ward, the newspaper reporter who follows the story. I love that this novel is set in Portland with the sights of the local area.
Trout Fishing in America
by Richard Brautigan
In this slim little cult classic, published in 1967, Brautigan takes us on a wild ride all over the Pacific Northwest (and on down to San Francisco). Overflowing with energy, humor, and insight, Trout Fishing in America is a pastiche of stories and fragmented reflections. If you haven't read this book, pick it up now; this is indeed required reading for anyone with an open mind and a love for literature.
East of the Mountains
by David Guterson
Best known for another great Northwest novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson's East of the Mountains is equally beautiful and poignant. It's the deceptively simple story of a terminally ill man's last journey into the Eastern Washington he loves.
Peter N.
Another Roadside Attraction
by Tom Robbins
In this funny, rambling tale about a pair of counterculture roadside attraction operators, Robbins asks: What if Jesus wasn't really resurrected? True to form, his first novel explores spirituality while questioning organized religion and social mores through philosophical parables and clever prose.
Genevieve A.
Hard Rain Falling
by Don Carpenter
One of the greatest novels published in the '60s, it's a shame this gritty, heartbreaking story about a teenaged orphan set loose on the streets of Portland is so little known. Time does have a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, though. Here's betting Mr. Carpenter's masterpiece will outlast the vast majority of its more popular peers.
My Abandonment
by Peter Rock
Based on a true story, My Abandonment is the tale of a Portland father and his teenage daughter who actually lived for several years in a cave in Forest Park. No one knew they were there, but when their story came to light, there was an outcry among the city's residents on behalf of the family. Peter Rock, a writing professor at Portland's Reed College, tells their story in prose at once spare and graceful, and manages to twist the story in a totally different direction than I had anticipated. I did not foresee the surprise at the end; I actually gasped out loud! This beautifully written little gem is absolutely perfect!
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by Sherman Alexie
This collection of interconnected stories explore the dreams, passions, contradictions, and heartbreak of being Indian in contemporary America. Bittersweet, poignantly ironic, and at times profoundly humorous, Alexie's writing is passionate and vivid. This is the work of a tremendous literary talent expertly telling the stories of a Northwest too many people refuse to acknowledge. Essential reading.
Brian S.
Last Go Round: A Real Western
by Ken Kesey
Last Go Round is a tall tale set around the real-life events of the original 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, a controversy that still raises hackles to this day. It showcases a love of a good yarn and gives a salute to our bustin' bronco past (real or imagined). Let 'er buck!
Morgan R.
Black Hole
by Charles Burns
Set in suburban Seattle in the 1970s, this graphic novel is the tale of a mysterious plague that has descended on the area's teenagers. Burns has a distinctive style, particularly suited to the disturbing stories he tells. While I love all his books, Black Hole is his masterpiece.
Adam P.
Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey
One family of hardheaded loggers goes against the entire town, but there's so much packed into the emotional lives of each character that any plot summary falls far short. Let's just call it a masterpiece, a whirling conflagration of desires, expectations, disappointments, and family, all colliding in the Oregon rain. You've got to stay on the bounce — and give Kesey's greatest novel (yeah, I said it) a read!
Benjamin H.
by Alexis M. Smith
is a perfect little jewel of a book. It narrates a single day in the life of Isabel, a 20-something who loves Portland and comfortably inhabits the city. Smith's prose is so evocative — you can hear the clink of the spoon on the glass and taste the honey in the tea. A peaceful, contemplative read.
Suzanne G.
The River Why
by David James Duncan
What can you say? This book is loved by so many readers for a reason. It does what all great fiction does: it gets in your bones and rattles the cage a bit. It also displays some of the most beautiful writing I've encountered about the art of fly fishing, giving even A River Runs through It a run for its money (though The River Why is much funnier).
by Cherie Priest
is set in an alternate-history Seattle with deadly zombie gas! Cherie Priest may have returned to the South, but she's certainly left her mark on the Pacific Northwest. I love all of the Clockwork Century books, but Boneshaker is known and loved for a reason.
Shannon B.
Permeable Borders
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
I am always excited to find a story by Nina when I pick up an anthology. But even better is a whole collection. Hoffman is a brilliant Oregon author who is often overlooked and underappreciated. Permeable Borders is a collection about place and family and magic… and if you're lucky, inanimate objects may start talking to you.
Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn
The Binewskis are just the typical Portland family: Traveling carnies Al and Lil Binewski breed their own carnival oddities through drug experimentation and radiation. Their children include a boy-fish, conjoined twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf, and one son without any such talents. Well, the siblings fight, the carnival becomes a cult, and things spiral out of control... then we end up in Portland for an emotional and empowering ending. Okay, maybe it's not all set in the Northwest, but it certainly packs a punch.
Jordan G.
No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July
July's short stories perfectly embody the wonder that is Portland, that is the Pacific Northwest. At once humorous as well as speculative, in this all-too-short collection, July is a roller coaster of emotions. Reading it is like listening to the saddest Morrissey song on repeat while watching old Chris Farley clips. In one word, perfection.
Nathaniel S.
vN: The First Machine Dynasty
by Madeline Ashby
Religion turns to science to provide for those left behind in the coming end times, resulting in self-replicating humanoids for humanity's use. Set in a near-future Pacific Northwest sparsely populated after an enormous earthquake, this robot family drama follows the growing pains of Amy and her psychotic clade-type of Stepford wives. Artificial Intelligence and its evolution — and mankind's relationship to it — is explored in this fast-paced adventure. A visit to the Virtual Reality Museum of Seattle's Pike Place Market is one of the more interesting stops during Amy's escape from bounty hunters and the government.
Brian W.
Ricochet River
by Robin Cody
I'm usually not drawn to "coming-of-age stories," but this one stuck with me. Set in the 1960s in the fictional Oregon town of Calamus, it follows three high school kids as they struggle with small-town life. I grew up in a small, rural logging town, and Cody nailed the type of people and places with which I was raised. The whole novel resonated with and reflected my own adolescent experiences.
The Motel Life
by Willy Vlautin
Two brothers run from Reno to a snowy Oregon and back to Nevada after a hit-and-run accident. Vlautin creates a short, enjoyable, sad, and humorous tale that got me hooked on his novels. The Motel Life is the perfect read for something simple yet very well written.
Jeff J.
Who in Hell Is Wanda Fuca?
by G. M. Ford
The first in Ford's Leo Waterman Mystery series, this book captures the character of Seattle and the Northwest and introduces a terrific private eye. Waterman gets entangled with environmental activists when he goes looking for the missing granddaughter of a local mobster. Northwesterners will know who Wanda Fuca is, but there are many more twists in this offbeat noir.
Drew P.
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
Narrated by the silent Chief Bromden, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is set in a mental hospital in Oregon headed by Big Nurse. When the new patient Randle McMurphy shows up, he brings some much-needed relief. Funny, too! This is one of my favorite books.
Dies the Fire
by S. M. Stirling
Before we were glued to the set watching The Walking Dead and Revolution, S. M. Stirling wrote about what would happen in the Pacific Northwest after technology dies, the last supermarket has been looted, and the government collapses. Dies the Fire sweeps away the zombies and gets to the really interesting part: How would we survive if civilization collapsed? You can't help but imagine whether you'd take up a sword, grab a bicycle, or sow seeds after the apocalypse. Part homesteading, part medieval fiefdom, and part wilderness survival, this story's long arc holds everything together with a little romance and enough gore to keep things interesting.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
The engaging story and believable characters can pull in reluctant readers, but this novel has appeal for all ages. Alexie has a talent for expressing emotional truths without coming across as sentimental. This is the kind of book you want to keep handy so that you can pass it on to friends.
Tracy H.
by Yasmine Galenorn
Half-human, half-Faerie, three sisters are torn between two worlds. A shape-shifter, a vampire, and a witch, the D'Artigo sisters are fighting to save Seattle from being taken over by Shadow Wing. Each book in the series rotates through the sisters' points of view while they continue to fight evil, create a makeshift family, and fall in love.
Kim W.
The Jump-Off Creek
by Molly Gloss
Set in the brutal Oregon high country in the 1890s, The Jump-Off Creek tells the story of the widow Lydia Sanderson and her struggles to settle in an unforgiving land. Gloss did her research, drawing on pioneer journals and hand-me-down stories, and she writes with a quiet restraint that respects the characters and their vast surroundings. Anyone interested in what life was actually like for Oregon's pioneers will love this book. It's the real deal.
by Gretchen McNeil
Looking for a good fright? This book has all the hallmarks of a horror film, and a great twist at the end. McNeil gets all the details of the Puget Sound spot on, making it spooky in how familiar it feels.
Erin D.
by Don Berry
Published in 1960 when Don Berry was 27, Trask is often mentioned in the same breath as Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion as the finest Oregon novel ever written. Set along the northern Oregon coast range in the late 1840s, Trask was inspired by the life of settler, mountain man, and fur trapper Elbridge Trask (for whom both a river and a mountain are named here in the Beaver State). Trask is more than mere historical fiction, however; it is also an insightful and exceptionally well-crafted novel that captures the great uncertainty and promise the settlers undoubtedly knew all too well.


This Boy's Life: A Memoir
by Tobias Wolff
Wolff's memoir retells his hardscrabble childhood in a dysfunctional family, but rather than inspire sympathy or pity, he evokes laughter. Wolff's teenage years, spent in Skagit County, Washington, are filled with the desperation of enormous creativity trapped in a midcentury small town, which left me rooting for young Tobias's escape through whatever dubious means necessary. I read this in a memoir-writing class, and for me it exemplifies the fusion of humor and hardship.
Ariel B.
Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story
by Brent Walth
Written by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Brent Walth, Fire at Eden's Gate chronicles Governor McCall's personal life and political career. Much like its subject, this engaging biography is characterized by its abundance of both verve and aplomb — an exceptional work that recalls the labors of an exceptional leader. Whether for crafting a portrait of an important political figure, or for distilling the unique essence of an American epoch, or simply because it is an altogether intriguing work of nonfiction, Fire at Eden's Gate is an important, singular, and unforgettable work that should be read by every Pacific Northwesterner.
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon
by Chuck Palahniuk
Not your typical hotel-gift-shop guidebook, Fugitives and Refugees makes no pretense at objectivity. This is a decidedly idiosyncratic and personal book. Palahniuk's Portland is eccentric, dysfunctional, and perverse. If you're new to Palahniuk's work, this book may win you over.
The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: The Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley
by Opal Whiteley and Benjamin Hoff
The nature diaries of Opal Whiteley are amazing for their magical, wide-eyed descriptions of forest and farm life. Raised on a Willamette Valley settlement in the early 20th century, Whiteley claimed to write this diary on scraps of paper at the age of six. Though her claims were disputed both in her lifetime and after, her writing is a unique window into our relationship with the natural world.
Sandra G.
Hidden History of Portland, Oregon
by J. D. Chandler
As a fan of local history, I found this volume to be a fascinating and enlightening collection of vignettes on the subject of civil rights in Portland and Oregon at large. These are stories you have probably never heard — stories about the displacement, mistreatment, and murder of the native population, the isolation and domestic violence endured by pioneer women, the struggles of black Portlanders against "socially accepted" racial segregation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and more. If you enjoy learning about local history or if you have a passion for civil rights, you will find this book immensely gratifying.
Sky Time in Gray's River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place
by Robert Michael Pyle
Pyle beautifully and poetically captures both time and place in this collection of essays. Village life and nature entwine in Gray's River, a tiny hamlet in rural southwest Washington, as Pyle meditates on the cycles of human, flora, and fauna. At once an accounting of both a year in passing as well as a simpler time in the not-too-distant past.
Gary C.
Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest
by Stewart Holbrook
The great Stewart Holbrook was a storytelling titan and remains one of the most important writers in Pacific Northwest history. Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks is a career-spanning collection of over two dozen pieces set mostly in Holbrook's beloved Oregon. Comfortable writing about nearly anything, his true tales often dealt with the fantastic, the forgotten, and the forlorn. Replete with a dizzying and rugged array of sensational characters including railroad moguls, anarchists, murderers, tavern owners, lumberjacks, communists, robber barons, prophets, cattle kings, outlaws, and prostitutes, this collection will intrigue anyone with even the remotest interest in the Pacific Northwest or neglected American history.
All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families
by Rene Denfeld
This book was an eye-opening look into a culture that Portlanders encounter on a daily basis but know little of. After reading this true-life, page-turning thriller, you'll be looking at the city around you with a leery eye.
Molly J.
Cascadia's Fault: The Coming Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America
by Jerry Thompson
This book contains fascinating scientific research, brilliant historical detection, and inspiring tales of prior tsunami and earthquake survivors. It may not happen in our lifetime, but in geological terms, the rupture of this fault is imminent. Knowledge is power. Be ready.
Kathleen H.
Of Walking in Rain
by Matt Love
Of Walking in Rain
is the latest literary output from the one-man stone Oregon publishing empire that is Matt Love. His devotion to and celebration of all things Beaver State is often infectious (and perhaps ought to be classified as a contagion). His newest work, a stylistic torrent, is a paean to Oregon's "most famous cultural asset" — rain. As he's wont to do in nearly all of his books, Love, amidst the deluge of rain-related reflections, recollections, and rants, offers a veritable flood of opinions on politicians, education and teaching, football, and sex, incorporating no shortage of literary and lyrical allusions to his favorite singers, songs, and scribes (especially Ken Kesey).

More Required Reading:

Books mentioned in this post

30 Responses to "Required Reading: 40 Books Set in the Pacific Northwest"

    knomad March 12th, 2014 at 11:29 am

    no love for the Wilding?

    Schulajess March 12th, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Maybe not "Must Reads" but these were on my list of top PNW books.
    A Time for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki
    The Orchardist - Amanda Coplin
    The Golden Spruce - John Vaillant

    Dan Schuttler March 12th, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Hey - I know you will get lots of "You left this one of the list" messages...but how could you not put any of Richard Hoyt's John Denson mysteries on the list? Hoyt lived out by Pendleton.
    I know Kesey is a great writer, but how about making room for some other authors? And I think Molly Gloss' "The Hearts of Horses" would have been a better choice to represent her.

    GLY March 12th, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    I would add
    The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch
    Little Century by Anna Keesey
    A Time for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

    Lli Wilburn March 12th, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I would add Livability by Jon Raymond. Very few stories have captured the epiphanies and disillusionments of 21st century Portland so well.

    kavikhahn March 12th, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Brothers K by David J Duncan

    benny builds banyas March 12th, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    A Heaven in the Eye by Clyde Rice

    Bennybuildsbanyas March 12th, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    and maybe you have to forgo the "Pacific" part of the list title, but
    A River Runs Through It is the most perfect story I have read.
    Don't judge it by the movie.

    baldbasq March 13th, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Only one Oregon novel has won a Pulitzer Prize. Which one, it's not
    named here? The list-makers are weak on nonfiction. Generally the
    list is heavy on "pop" writing and weak on classics.

    Erin March 13th, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    I suppose it's not completely clear, but these "Required Reading" lists are put together by the Powell's Staff, and aren't meant to be all inclusive or definitive. These are just our favorite books.

    Patrick Murtha March 15th, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I appreciate the list - there are books here that I will seek out. I have two additional nominations for attention. One fiction - John Keeble's Yellowfish. One non-fiction - Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers.

    Laura March 15th, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    What about Laurie R. King's Folly, Keeping Watch, or A Darker Place. They are well-written and very Northwest-evocative.

    Cass Kale March 15th, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    A NEW LIFE by Bernard Malamud

    An excellent novel set mainly in Corvallis. I've yet to read a better description of rain in the NW.

    Jill Kahn March 16th, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Other greats:
    Broken for you
    Where'd you go Bernadette
    The School of Essential Ingredients
    A Tale for the Time Being

    Kathy Stavrakis March 16th, 2014 at 6:59 am

    Thank you for your list. There are many fine books on it. Please consider reading my husband Craig Lesley's work for some insightful views of Oregon, especially Oregon outside of Portland. There are both fiction, such as Winterkill, and non-fiction, such as Burning Fence.

    Chuck Lathrop March 16th, 2014 at 11:30 am

    One vote for M Wylie Blanchet's 'The Curve In Time'

    Mouse March 16th, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Where are the books by Jane Kirkpatrick? She has multiple Fiction and one awesome non fiction. A better list would include a few of her's.

    Don March 16th, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Tim Egan's The Good Rain needs to be on this list.

    Bob March 16th, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    You forgot Tom Spanbauer and "The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon" shame shame shame on you. This book speaks volumes to the experience of Queer Men living in the PNW.

    Mark March 17th, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Good list and better comments...Don't overlook the Alaskans like Eva Saulitis,Richard Nelson,Spike Walker,Nancy Lord,Seth Kantner,and all those Fish Poets - 'Anchored in Deep Water'...!!

    Amy April 13th, 2014 at 4:22 am

    "The Living" by Annie Dillard

    Andi April 23rd, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    What about The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt? This is a dark and funny Western set in 1851, in Oregon and California.

    Allison Green April 23rd, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    No No Boy by John Okada!

    Margot Knight August 5th, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson set in fictionalized Fingerbone substituting for Sandpoint ID is, quite simply, the most beautifully written book I have ever read.

    Paula August 7th, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I recommend adding:

    Snow Falling on Cedars
    the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy ;-)

    Laney August 28th, 2014 at 12:32 am

    Some gems here for sure, but William Kittredge and Craig Lesley should both have works represented....'Owning It All' and 'Winterkill' for example.

    Michael August 31st, 2014 at 2:46 am

    I appreciate this list, many thanks!
    However, as for my suggestion, I would recommend THE BORDER TRILOGY series by Cormac McCarthy!! How did he get missed?!!
    Book 2: THE CROSSING

    Al September 17th, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    SkyFisherman Craig Lesley
    Angle of Repose Wallace Stegner

    Leah November 20th, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    I would add:
    Set This House In Order - Matt Ruff
    The Sea Runners - Ivan Doig

    Thebooktrail March 27th, 2015 at 6:14 am

    What a great list! Will have to take a look at some of these. My abandonment and The River Why look good - on there are so many to read here but then again we do love a challenge ;)

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