REI raingear, Keens, Subarus, and, these days, requisite Bernie Sanders stickers. You can spot a Pacific Northwesterner from as far away as the Redwood forest and the Gulf Stream waters. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest since the late 1970s, I can play the part sublimely, although hints of my New York accent surface occasionally.
I wanted to move to Seattle as early as 1968 when Here Come the Brides aired on American television. Jack Keller’s theme song boasted about the bluest skies you’ve ever seen and hills of the greenest green in Seattle. As an 11-year-old not yet old enough to realize the clear misogynistic theme of the show, all I wanted to do was be a new bride aboard a sailing ship bound for Seattle to meet my own Bobby Sherman.
Fast-forward several decades and a career in journalism and teaching later, I did indeed meet my Ideal Northwest Man, although he wore an old wool hat and beat up boots and drove a rusted Volvo station wagon. As a fisheries biologist, he traversed raging rivers and climbed waterfalls as he assessed fish habitats for a living.
The genesis for my novel, Eliza Waite, resulted after said Ideal Northwest Man and I discovered an abandoned cabin on a cross-island hike on largely uninhabited Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands in the fall of 2008. The cabin sat in sad disrepair: sagging roof, rotting beams, and the evidence of rodent and raccoon feces.
Near the cabin, a small plaque commemorates a Mrs. Zoe Hardy, who lived alone at the location in the 1930s. A recluse, Mrs. Hardy farmed the land surrounding the cabin, eschewed strangers, and died mysteriously after a short illness. Her body was never found.
I decided that day that a novel set in that locale could be equally mysterious and intriguing. The core of the story evolved over the first two years, and as the years progressed, the story grew with the protagonist, and the protagonist grew with the story.
Ideal Northwest Man and I returned often to Cypress Island aboard his 28’ trawler to hike, kayak, and write. And write some more.
Part One of the novel is set on Cypress; Part Two is set in Skagway, Alaska during the tumultuous Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Part One was conjured from my imagination as I immersed myself in visiting the island. It was especially interesting researching Part Two, the Alaska portion of the novel; I traveled to Skagway and Anchorage to conduct interviews and pore over archival media: books, photos, essays, magazines, diaries, and cookbooks from the late 1800s. Librarians, museum curators, and costumed townsfolk filled in many blanks for this Eastern-bred girl who’s afraid of bears. Ideal Northwest Man also chimed in and taught my protagonist how to chop wood, jig for lingcod, and fashion a spear, among other mountain man talents.
Eight years later, Eliza Waite is scheduled to hit regional bookstores in mid-May. Although my protagonist could have been one of the mail-order brides like the women in the long-ago show I watched, the path she chose spits in the face of sexism and conformity. She forges her way through a difficult and exciting time in American history and emerges as a whole woman standing on her own.
Readers will have to see if Eliza finds her own Ideal Northwest Man.
I like to think that good things come to those who wait.
Washington journalist Ashley E. Sweeney’s first novel, ELIZA WAITE, released Tuesday May 17 by She Writes Press, is part diary, part recipe file, and part Gold Rush history—a powerful, moving novel about a young widow’s trail blazing and reinvention as well as a riveting read about a raucous and colorful time in American history.