Dan

The Trask novels

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Trask by Don Berry is the first book of a loose trilogy set in the Oregon Territory in the mid 1800s, a time when most of the settlers were first generation, and the bulk of the territory was still unoccupied.

Eldridge Trask is a historical figure, a former mountain man becoming restless on the Clatsop Plains near the mouth of the Columbia River, where he has settled down with his wife, but where he feels 'blocked', and this book chronicles his decision to try to become one of the first white settlers in what became Tillamook County, Oregon. But to do so with some relative safety he must first appeal to the Tyee, or chief, of the Killamooks (as it was spelled in those days), a man named Kilchis, also a historical figure. In fact 2 of the 5 rivers flowing into Tillamook Bay are named for these two men.

So Trask hires an Indian guide, a tamanawis, or shaman, named Charley Kehwa, and a young Clatsop Indian named Wakila, and sets off on the dangerous and trackless journey south, crossing several fingers of the Coast Range which reach into the sea. But even after reaching the bay, ominously named Murderer's Harbor in those days, there are still dangers to be faced in his encounter with Kilchis and various other Killamooks, not all of whom are overjoyed at the prospect of white settlement.

This was an excellent book, a historically accurate presentation of the place and time, though not necessarily as accurate a depiction of the historical figures themselves. But then it never claims to be a biography. Berry is concerned mostly with presenting the mindset of the characters involved, the trials and travails they must undergo, and the sweeping changes the white settlers wrought on the land and the indigenous peoples. But Trask himself is a rare bird in the territory; one who has great respect and sympathy for the natives and their way of life.

This book is definitely several cuts above the standard fare of historical fiction, and I would even consider it to be literature, with its meditations on living with, not against, the environment, and it's showcasing of both the superstition and the wisdom of Native American spirituality. The only flaws in the book were that it was a little black and white on some issues, it didn't delve into the minds of the Indians in the same way that it did into that of Trask, and a key element of the denouement was unnecessarily, and tragically, melodramatic. But it was a great read, pacy, and lyrical in its descriptions, as well as educational and thought provoking. 4.5 stars

Edited by Dan

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Moontrap by Don Berry is book 2 of the trilogy. In this novel we meet Webster 'Webb' Webster, a crotchety, cantankerous,and misanthropic old fur trapper, who has come to Oregon City on a bit of a farewell tour, having noted the decline in his own condition and in that of the world he'd known, and decided that his string had run out; Dr John McLaughlin, an historic figure as one of the bigwigs of the Hudson's Bay Company, a man well respected by everyone he knew except for the members of the Mission Party, the primary political force in that time and place; Joe Meek, another historic personage, one of the Representatives of the Oregon Territory, and it's first Marshall, a former mountain man himself and old crony of Webb's; Mr Thurston, an evangelical advocate of 'civilizing' the Oregon country, a humorless and hidebound little man with the soul of a bureaucrat and the compassion of a stone; and Johnson Monday and his Shoshone wife Mary, former mountain folk trying to make a go of flatland life on a farm.

The time is 1850,shortly after the arrest of 5 Indians for the Whitman Massacre, in which missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, along with 11 others, were murdered by a band of Cayuse Indians for allegedly poisoning the tribe during a measles epidemic. Anti-Indian sentiment is running high, and Johnson Monday and his Native wife are persecuted by it, even though Monday was part of the posse which brought the alleged killers to their incarceration.

This is an outstanding book which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1962. It deals with complex issues with subtlety and a distinct lack of preachiness,(although one senses that the acerbic Webb speaks for the author's feelings), and is at its best when delving into the minds of Monday and Webb, and showing the conflict between the freedom of the mountain life and the regulated and rigid world of the predominately fundamentalist and narrow minded Christian settlers, which is essentially the dichotomy between fun and duty, or responsibility to society or to self.

And there are strong racist overtones to the settlers beliefs, especially as expressed by their community leaders, of which Mr Thurston is one. Surprisingly, since Oregon and Washington states have become a bastion of liberal viewpoints, the charter which was enacted to create the Oregon Territory included provisions banning not only slavery but Negroes in general, freemen or slave!

But, really, it is the characterizations of Monday and Webb that make this book. And they are wonderful examples of divergence from a common root, for whereas Monday has tried to fit in with the changing world, and is killing his spirit to do so, his old friend Webb has moved even further away from any structured life, and in fact displays a Zen-like ability to thrive and adapt when outside the bounds of society and in his natural habitat of wilderness, becoming very spiritual when not constrained by humanity.

There is abundant symbolism in this book, much of which is obvious, though there are subtleties which can be pondered. The writing is still first rate. There are lighthearted moments as the old mountain men get together, and the pranks they pull on each other can be hair raising. And there is great tragedy here, in ways both subtle and profound. And, while I'm sure my view is colored by the fact that I live in the area depicted, this has been the book of the year for me, so far. 5 stars

Edited by Dan

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To Build a Ship by Don Berry is the third book in the trilogy, which should be called The Oregon Territory novels, rather than the Trask novels, since Elbridge Trask only appears in the first one, although he is referenced in books 2&3.

This time around we are back in Tillamook Bay where a group of settlers, who had been dependent on a bold, but recently deceased, Captain of a sailing vessel who was willing to cross the treacherous bar of Tillamook Bay and trade with them, decide to build their own ship and thereby re-establish a trade route through their harbor. And they do happen to have a shipwright in their midst, but it turns out Little Sam is somewhat unbalanced, and his mania for a married Native woman causes big problems for the shipbuilding settlers.

There was much to like about this novel. The first person narration of Ben Thaler tended to be amusing and self deprecating, though not necessarily reliable. But Thaler was not always a sympathetic character, and certainly didn't have the high regard for the indigenous way of life that Trask or Webb Webster or Johnson Monday had.

This was a novel about obsession in various forms, and about the way obsession obscures the lines of morality until the good is what satisfies the obsession, and the bad is anything that obstructs it. In its own way it was as tragic as Moontrap or Trask.

This book was also very loosely based on historical figures and events. The settlers of Tillamook Bay did indeed attempt to build their own ship, albeit a little while later than depicted, after the area had become slightly more 'civilized'. The lack of historical veracity wasn't as bothersome as the occasionally uneven tone, and the fact that the somewhat dismissive attitude of Thaler and others towards the Indians and the environment was galling enough that I wasn't actively rooting for them to succeed at building their ship. Having read the other books I have no doubt that Berry did not share their attitude, and that it was reflective of common sentiment at the time, but it still lessened my ability to care.

Still, this was a very good book, a well thought out and thought provoking meditation on obsession, and even a fitting finale to the trilogy, with the 'conquerors' mentality winning the day, as it most surely has in real life. 4 stars

Edited by Dan

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