[Editor's Note: Don't miss Matt Love's reading at Powell's Books on Hawthorne on Thursday, August 13, at 7:30pm.
Nothing captures my attention like seeing a large vehicle with California license plates parked in front of a real estate office in Oregon. It makes me wonder: do these potential newcomers know anything about the state other than it generally being considered one of the most desirable places to live in the country?
In recent years, I have met what seems to me an astonishing number of people who did not grow up in Oregon, like I did. This hardly bothers me. All places need fresh blood. What has bothered me is learning that virtually none of these new residents have much curiosity about the state, particularly how it ended up a promised land for their migration. They are here, they like it, and that seems to satisfy.
That does not satisfy me. Any person moving to a new place should study thoroughly that place; I believe it is owed. The study should be diverse, ranging from botany to literature, but, if I wielded the power to make just one subject compulsory for all Oregon newcomers, it would be our recent political history.
Let me be blunt: if you don't know the stories of Celilo Falls, Tom McCall and why the public owns the state's ocean beaches, then you really don't know where you are. Thus, to aid those interested in overcoming their ignorance, I offer a list of books that I believe can provide any newcomer to Oregon with a basic political understanding of exactly where they are.
A note on the list: It may outrage some that I've omitted Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark titles, but they've received their due.
Death of Celilo Falls by Katrine Barber (2005)
In 1957, an engineer at the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River gave the "down gates" command. Four and half hours later, Celilo Falls was dead, and so to, ultimately, was the 10,000-year spiritual and economic tradition of upwards to 10,000 Indians seasonally gathering there to fish for salmon and trade. I am not alone casting the drowning of Celilo Falls as the greatest act of cultural genocide in Pacific Northwest history. In her superb book, Katrine Barber documents the many political and cultural machinations that made construction of the dam almost inevitable.
Essay "The Lawgiver" by Lincoln Steffens, from This Land Around Us: A Treasury of Pacific Northwest Writing (1969)
Muckracking journalist Lincoln Steffens profiled Oregon politico William U'Ren at the dawn of the 20th century and produced a masterpiece that glorified the father of the so called Oregon System, meaning the direct democracy measures of the initiative, referendum and recall (the former that Bill Sizemore raped beyond all recognition). U'Ren successfully championed them all, putting Oregon on the map for progressive reform. In the profile, U'Ren shouts, in response to Steffens asking how hard he would fight to protect the public's interest, "I would go to hell for the people of Oregon!" Shouldn't that line be worked into the oath of office for governor?
Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story by Brent Walth (1994)
In my mind, Brent Walth's biography of Tom McCall, the two-term governor from 1967-74 who fought for and signed the legislation that turned this state into one of the coolest places in North America, stands as perhaps the most important Oregon history book to appear in the last 50 years. It certainly is the most cited. Having said that, though, I also believe Oregon desperately needs a new biography on McCall to take advantage of all the new research into the McCall's legacy. There's more to the story.
Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis by Joseph E. Taylor III (1999)
A rush of good books calling attention to the worsening plight of the region's wild salmon appeared in the late '90s. I like this one the best for its penetrating look at the role hatcheries have played in the demise of wild salmon and how this 19th century technology still masks a regional ecological crisis. Hatchery salmon continue to pose the greatest ecological fraud in this state's history, and this book provides the necessary arguments to take on the delusions of the hatchery addicts employed at the Oregon Department of (fake) Fish and (kill) Wildlife.
Hard Times in Paradise: Coos Bay, Oregon, 1850-1986 by William Robbins (1988)
Loggers versus environmentalists. Most new residents probably view the tension in Oregon's forests through this simplistic lens. But long before spotted owls and awareness of degraded watersheds became part of the narrative, those who worked in the industry that once dwarfed all others in the state suffered the booms and busts of the timber economy. The city of Coos Bay got hardest hit of all and William Robbins short and informative history of what happened there (complete with a new prologue and epilogue for the 2006 edition) provides an illuminating look at the economic and ecological realities that led up to the collapse in the '80s. Can you believe George McGovern actually received more votes than Richard Nixon in Coos County in 1972? Robbins show why.
A Hundred Little Hitlers by Elinor Langer (2003)
Any honest accounting of Oregon history must confront the state's racist past — some of it not that long ago. Langer's book, the most brilliantly conceived and executed work of non-fiction I've read in recent memory, details the 1988 skinhead baseball bat murder of an Ethiopian man in Portland and the show civil trial that unfolded in the murder's aftermath. Sometimes we in Oregon like to think our state is above racist barbarity. We are not. We have often led the way. Hate has flared here before with tragic consequences and it will again.
Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur (2003)
It behooves every resident of this state to own this classic reference work to learn the origins of the names of Oregon places where we live, work and play. I mean, let's say someone lived near Whiskey Creek in Tillamook County. Shouldn't that person know the creek's name originated when several wives became highly upset because their husbands sat at water's edge drinking from a keg of whiskey and wouldn't help with camp chores? And then the women dumped the liquor in the creek! Yes, that person should.