he Pacific Northwest is a region that defies simple categorization. Although most people automatically associate it with rain, the Northwest is in fact a complex and varied area, with volcanoes over 14,000 feet tall, the deepest gorge in the country, desert areas and the only rain forest in North America. A River Out of Eden, a new novel from John Hockenberry, is just as varied as the region, and just as intriguing.
The book is set on the Columbia River, which flows from Canada through Washington and Oregon. At times a thoughtful, eloquently written character study, and at others a fast-paced thriller, A River Out of Eden succeeds on both levels.
The story begins with the mysterious deaths of several federal employees who were working to maintain the dwindling levels of salmon in the Columbia River. Francine Smohalla, a Chinook Indian and government biologist working with the salmon, is the first to discover a body, this one floating in a salmon breeding tank next to the Bonneville Dam. Soon, Duke McCurdy, the son of a white supremacist, and Duane Madison, chief of security for the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in eastern Oregon, find the bodies of two more salmon workers. Each victim appears to have been killed with a Native American salmon harpoon. As the body count rises, the lives and stories of the characters begin to collide.
Why these people have been killed, and by whom, is only the tip of the iceberg. Hockenberry, who wrote about the challenges of working as a wheelchair-bound journalist in Moving Violations, is an Emmy-winning correspondent for NBC's Dateline. In his first work of fiction, he creates believable characters and ties them together with a story that traces the long and varied history of Native Americans along the Columbia River. In addition to Francine, Duke and Duane, there is a large supporting cast, all with rich stories that add to the narrative. And with right wing extremism, racial and economic tensions, and record-setting rains thrown into the mix, Hockenberry has created a potent blend that reflects the conflicting beliefs and cultural traditions of the region. When floodwaters begin to threaten dams along the river, it seems an ancient Indian prediction of the apocalypse might prove true.
A River Out of Eden is mysterious, enthralling and powerful, an apt tribute to the river on which it is set.
Wes Breazeale is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest.