By Izzy Stringham
Special to The Sopris Sun
“Damnation Spring” is a remarkable debut novel by Ash Davidson, and easily one of the finest to be released last year. Its well-conceived plot and storytelling, along with complicated but relatable characters, made for a read that was hard to put down.
The story follows the Gunderson family living in coastal Northern California in 1977. The local timber industry has been the only job in town and, as the last of the old growth forests are either being cut or protected and turned into parks, high climber Rich Gunderson makes a risky decision to secure his family’s future.
Meanwhile, his wife Colleen is dealing with her own tragedy, having suffered several miscarriages while also working as a midwife to assist her neighbors bringing their own children into the world. The town they live in is remote and harsh, but full of natural beauty that includes the trees and salmon runs that pre-date the founding of America.
The life of a timber worker is risky; money is never secure and residents are tied to the timber company in ways they can’t escape. Various characters enter the plot, some backing the company and others trying to show the damage being done, both to the environment and the people who live there.
The natural world plays a large role in “Damnation Spring”, as does the damage of logging, spraying and clearcutting the forest. Almost like a character all its own, the woods and streams are a place at once being loved and ruined by the people who live there. They wouldn’t go anywhere else, but their own destruction of the forest is beginning to force their hands.
The author, Ash Davidson, doesn’t shy away from the complex issues this brings up, and with empathy and humility acknowledges the lumberjacks trying to make a living, the Native Americans trying to keep their traditions alive and the strong hands of capitalism and the timber industry trying to make money at all costs. Her nuance goes much deeper than simply laying blame. It’s easy to take an issue as good or bad, black or white and this novel shows just how complicated things really are. Good people are everywhere, and Davidson’s characters are masterful examples.
The many layers of the plot are told in the perspectives of Rich, Colleen and their son, as a single year of their lives progresses. Davidson’s prose and dialog were so compelling, I found myself completely immersed in the personal stories. The characters started to feel like friends or neighbors, simple people living complicated lives, with all the dreams, desires and tragedy that are part of being human. Davidson gave them humor, wisdom and love. Even inside their worst mistakes, I found myself attached to the characters like they were my own family, and hoping fervently that things would work out for the best.
When the book came to its dramatic conclusion, I felt like I’d spent the actual year living in this town and had personally experienced all that had ensued. Davidson wove all the threads of the story together for a satisfying ending and, when I closed the last page, it was as if I was leaving old friends behind.
I highly recommend “Damnation Spring” for anyone who loves a well-paced novel or memorable characters. The themes of environmental catastrophe and upheaval could not be more relevant, and Ash Davidson’s superb dialog, and innate understanding of what makes people tick, make this novel a moving read.
“Damnation Spring” is currently nominated for the Reading The West award and copies in paperback are available at White River Books in Carbondale.