There is the Oregon we all love: the majestic mountains, the stunning rivers and waterfalls, and the deep, mysterious ocean. You can go from snow to desert in one day in Oregon, crossing the passes into the flinty reservations, or you can turn the other direction and find yourself with your feet in the sand, watching the waves pound the shore while the sun sets.
That is the Oregon that draws so many, and eternally pleases us natives, even if we grew up in the city. You just can’t escape nature here. She spawns wildflowers even in the crevices of the sidewalks, and turns every abandoned ditch into a cacophony of greenery and bird noise. A body of literature has been based on this natural Oregon, and more than one splendid wall calendar.
But there is another Oregon, ignored by most writers because it tempers our ideals of our oasis. It is the Oregon of distilled poverty, a state where there are more prisons and jails than colleges; a place that incarcerates more blacks than Louisiana. Just as you can drive from desert to snow in one day, so can you drive from homeless camps in the city to abject poverty in the woods. Both Oregons exist, not side by side, but with hands linked.
I’ve written two novels set here. The first, The Enchanted, was juxtaposed between a death row prison and the stunning but dying timber towns set in the fir forests. The second, The Child Finder, switches between a primeval, snowy mountain region, and a sweet farm valley, and a colder, confused city that wrestles with how to admit its own wrongs.
Both novels deal with the violence of both nature and humans. Both examine the harm that people can inflict on each other. Both illuminate our vast capacity for survival, healing, and redemption.
It would be easy to write a crime novel set in an Oregon where nature is tamed, and the bad guy is not one of us — where we are as blameless as perfect children, without racism, poverty, or callousness to victims. But it wouldn’t be true. And besides, in the end, such novels are boring. They are as superficial as the beautiful water bugs that lurk in our still wood ponds, skating away at the first signs of danger.
As a writer, I want to dive deep. I want to show how we are all changelings, capable of good and bad — often at the same time — and yet how steadfast, too, as firm as the forgotten hills. I want to feel and touch the truth: how dangerous and wild those snowy mountains, where dozens go missing every year; how complex and human our souls, even those who have done the worst harm.
I want real people in my books, such as the black characters in The Child Finder, who could be my own relatives, dealing with racism and discrimination against an autistic family member; or the ageless white trappers who live in the forests, with primal lives that haven’t changed for a century; or the war veteran who lost a limb in Iraq; or the parents of a missing child who struggle with isolation; or the young investigator hired to find the child who herself was the victim of a terrible crime. And the child herself, being held captive in a world that mystifies and consoles her with beauty.
To me, that’s the real Oregon. It’s a place where we can sit under a canopy of stars, smelling either salt or fir trees on the wind, and a place where a few terrible steps off a mountain road can get us lost. It is a place as flawed, wondrous, and regenerative as nature herself.
Rene Denfeld is an author, journalist, and death penalty investigator. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Oregonian, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of four nonfiction books. The Enchanted received the Prix du Premier Roman Étranger in France. The Child Finder is her most recent novel.