LaSalle weaves together several narratives about cultural and territorial tensions in this novel of the Old Pacific Northwest.
Isaac is a frontier lawyer, tax collector, and militiaman who is quickly becoming the most respected man in the Oregon Territory. However, his ambition to help bring American-style civilization to the northern Pacific coast, and his desire to protect his neighbors from marauding bands of Native Americans, has made him an increasingly distant husband and father. His wife, Emmy, is forced to shoulder the responsibilities of their homestead during Isaac’s frequent trips away, all while caring for the couple’s son, a daughter from a previous marriage, and the unborn child in her belly. Isaac and Emmy, along with Haida headhunter Anah-nawitka and the harried American Captain George Edward Pickett (of later Gettysburg fame), form the nucleus of this historical novel dealing with the changing face of the colonial Northwest. As the northern clans launch increasingly gruesome raids on the white settlers, while British and American interests loom uneasily in the background, the inhabitants of this region must band together to survive and thrive in their deadly new home.
LaSalle is an adept writer of interiority. The distant and immediate conflicts of his characters coexist on the page in a way the makes their struggles seem as complex and vital as those of any modern individual. As they negotiate the sale of precious beef to the army or paddle in canoes carrying “war trophies still dripping with the blood of beheaded sailors,” LaSalle’s characters navigate the familiar trials of family, reputation, legacy, and redemption that confront us today. He presents the political and racial divisions of the period as being just as problematic in the moment as they are in historical hindsight. Furthermore, the notions of home and ownership are as fraught with the nuances of perspective as they would be for people today, be they invaders, gentrifiers, or long-settled inhabitants.
Though the prose becomes stilted at times, the immersive detailing of the frontier world is so beguiling that the reader is quickly lost in the rhythms of boats, hunting parties, farm chores, and lonely, isolating nights. The tension continues to mount all the way to the horrific, inevitable end, but the lingering emotion the reader is left with upon conclusion is an irrational longing for the harsh romantic milieu of the Old Pacific Northwest.
WIDOW WALK is an engaging character-driven narrative of an underexplored period in American history.