A historical saga about a Norwegian family and the empire they successfully build in early 20th century Seattle. 1986.
Hooray, it’s 2016! This means I can now review a book from 1986 (as per my arbitrary 30-year-cutoff for “vintage” qualifications). Folks, we’re off to a crazy and wild start.
Seattle may not be “crazy and wild,” but it is a wonderfully engaging historical novel, focusing on one family and spanning the late 1800s to World War I and the mid 1920s.
Seattle opens with the Peerson family household on the brink of an epic moment in American history: gold is about to be discovered in Alaska. In the wake of the Klondike gold rush, Seattle changes virtually overnight. The Peerson patriarch, a sensible, cautious fisherman, makes a rash decision to head to Alaska and seek his fortune too.
Why? Because his son, young Trygve Peerson, has announced that he doesn’t want to grow up to become a fisherman like his father; instead, he wants to finish school and eventually become an educated professional, like a judge. A fisherman cannot financially support this dream–but a gold miner could, and so Trygve’s father sets off for Alaska.
We are privy to the tragedy that lies ahead: in the haste to make a quick buck (or thousand), one of the town’s most notorious leaders has decided to secretly buy up a shipyard company. In his greed, this cunning man has pushed for a rusting old vessel to be made sort of seaworthy. Tickets sell quickly, and so Tryve’s father is soon among the wannabe miners on board.
After the ship apparently sinks in open water, drowning nearly everyone on board, the Peerson family is in despair. Soon, Trygve’s mother steps into the leadership role as head of the family, and the family begins to recover.
Our main character, however, is Trygve, a precocious young man who sees Seattle grow exponentially as he himself shoots up. His elder sister helps provide for the family by acting as maid for a widowed professor and his daughter Sarah. By association, Trygve’s path repeatedly crosses with Sarah’s, and we see these two characters grow alternately toward and away from each other.
Trygve, with his ever-inquiring mind, gets into some tight scrapes and meets some unusual characters. As a young teen, during his hours of “real life” study in Seattle’s courtrooms, Trygve happens to meet a Japanese college student. This inspires a lifelong friendship, as well as a lifelong pursuit of justice for the Japanese in Seattle, who are restricted to the slums and institutionally discriminated against. And then there’s Trygve’s other pursuit of justice: to bring to light the man behind his father’s tragic drowning.
One of my favorite themes of Seattle is the strength of the female characters. Each of them are different, just as the men are all diversely imagined, but they all possess something akin to a spotlight. I love how the Peerson matriarch deftly guides the family–often without their realizing it. I love how Trygve’s sisters, and even their young friend Sarah, all have very believable motives for the definitive paths they take. Toward the end of the novel, for instance, we watch as Sarah, undeterred by motherhood, explores the very new field of modern dance.
Seattle is a historical novel that I absolutely recommend, whether you’ve been to Seattle before or not. Personally, I have no more than a passing acquaintance the with city. If anything, Seattle allowed me to feel a real connection to the place…and some landmarks to seek out the next time I’m in town!
And thank you to Charlotte Paul for giving her main character such a great name. Don’t be surprised if this ends up being the name of my firstborn son…Ha! But no, for real.