15 June 2014

Which way now, Huck?

I was delighted with John Straley's Cold Storage Alaska. Even though I got a Lake Wobegon-like story instead of the mystery I expected, Straley got me interested in his characters and kept me entertained.

In the afterward to that book, I learned that there was a prequel of sorts that was published several years before Cold Storage Alaska. I found that prequel at Barnes and Noble and snapped it up. It's called The Big Both Ways.

Annabelle was the matriarch of the community in Cold Storage, Alaska that Straley wrote about. In The Big Both Ways, Annabelle is a young adolescent on the run with her aunt, Ellie Hobbs, who is involved in radical politics, the Wobblies, organized crime, and the cops. After disposing of an inconvenient body, the two of them are joined by Slippery (Slip) Wilson, a logger who quit his job after seeing his best friend die in an awful accident. All three are headed for Alaska, new starts, and ways to make a living.

The book is the story of how this unlikely trio got from the forests of central Washington to a tiny town on the inside passage of southern Alaska. And it's the story of a Seattle cop who kept trying to follow them. (But when he finds them, he only wants to know what really happened. Then he quits his cop job and becomes part of the Cold Storage community, known by Annabelle as Uncle George.)

But this novel is not really a mystery. Somebody wrote that it was a Jack London like story. I don't think so. I think it's an early 20th century, west coast version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The river isn't the Mississippi, but it's the inside passage. And it doesn't flow south all the time. It flows south and north, depending on the tides ("big both ways").

The adventurers aren't seeking freedom for Jim, but they are seeking freedom for themselves by getting lost in unfamiliar country. They're being chased by George the detective, by some union thugs who are out to capture a traitor, and by some gangsters who want money they believe Ellie Hobbs has made off with.

The little trio row their hearts out in a skiff, catch rides with questionable characters in big boats, evade Canadian customs, fight the tides, get shot at, and poach a farmer's lamb.

Like the story of Huck and Jim, it's difficult to imagine exactly how they survived and made it through the travails of travel. But I was really glad they did. I was cheering for them from the second third of the book.

Once again, I liked the characters and was entertained by their adventures. I certainly hope John Straley writes more stories like these. Mysteries would be okay too, but modeling stories after Garrison Keillor, Mark Twain, or Jack London works pretty well.

Have you read The Big Both Ways? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

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