Finished on May 28, 2022
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)
A stunning novel about love, work, and marriage that asks how far one family and one community will go to protect their future.
Colleen and Rich Gundersen are raising their young son, Chub, on the rugged California coast. It’s 1977, and life in this Pacific Northwest logging town isn’t what it used to be. For generations, the community has lived and breathed timber; now that way of life is threatened.
Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper. It’s a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall—a job that both his father and grandfather died doing. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son—and they take steps to assure their future. Rich secretly spends their savings on a swath of ancient Redwoods. Colleen, desperate to have a second baby, challenges the logging company’s use of herbicides that she believes are responsible for the many miscarriages in the community—including her own. Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a budding conflict that threatens the very thing they are trying to protect: their family.
Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is an intimate, compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. An extraordinary story of the transcendent, enduring power of love—between husband and wife, mother and child, and longtime neighbors. An essential novel for our times.
I went into Damnation Spring completely blind and wound up loving it, so much so that it may be my #1 read of 2022, and I'm willing to bet that it could someday become a classic. I learned a lot about the logging industry, but it was the characters who stole my heart. The novel is told from three points of view, alternating chapters between Rich, his wife, Colleen, and their young son, Chub. I loved this family and Ash Davidson does a remarkable job creating fully realized characters, the type one cannot help but come to love and care about.
The Northern California location is very familiar to me, which made the read even more enjoyable. Davidson's book is set in Del Norte County between Crescent City and Klamath. My husband and I travel to Northern California in our RV fairly often and I've driven Highway 101 and the Last Chance Grade (a 3-mile section of Hwy 101 between Wilson Creek and Crescent City), which is mentioned in this debut novel.
We have spent time in line with other vehicles, waiting to make our way along the one lane strip of highway, which hangs high above the ocean, ready to give way at any moment. Thankfully, I'm the driver, and thus too busy watching the road (and the big earth movers on the hillside), not daring to gaze down at the long drop to the ocean on my right.
The fog was so thick she could barely make out the guardrail running along the cliff edge like a fence. She hunched forward over the wheel. Every time the ground around Last Chance Creek crumbled off into the ocean, mudslide taking a section of the coast highway with it, Caltrans talked about rerouting the road inland.
We have driven past the golden bears on the Klamath River bridge, and have chuckled at the crowded parking lot of the Trees of Mystery (with its enormous wood carvings of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox), more times than I can count. We've stopped for cheeseburgers in Crescent City, waited for a herd of elk to cross the quiet highway in Orick, and camped near Trinidad at the Elk Country RV Park. These locations are all mentioned in Damnation Spring, so it was easy for me to envision where the Gundersens lived and worked.
I almost took a half-point off my rating due to the disappointing (albeit realistic) conclusion of the novel, but upon further reflection, the author's choice makes perfect sense and my reaction felt appropriate. I can't reveal more details without giving away spoilers, but I hope to read the book in 2023 with my book group so I can talk about not only the ending, but also the effects of the logging industry in our area. Oregon is the number one producer of softwood lumber (primarily Douglas fir), and we are witness to the results of clear-cutting, slash burning, and road damage from the weight of heavy logging trucks.
Favorite or powerful passages:
"The real timber's gone," Lark said. "What's left, ten percent, including the parks? Two thousand years to grow a forest, a hundred years to fall it. No plague like a man."
They rode in silence up the crumbling highway along the ocean, asphalt pot-holed from the weight of loaded log trucks, winding along the narrow strip of coastal timber the park had annexed back in '68. Big trees hugged the road edge like mink trim sewn to a burlap coat, hiding the clear-cuts that lay just beyond.
Redwoods towered, disappearing into the fog above. So that was why Rich had brought them. He wanted Chub to stand here looking up at these giant pillars, ferns taller than he was, rhododendrons jeweled with dew, ground quilted with sorrel, to breathe it in before it was gone.
The plane's engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They'd flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding's potential--an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They'd flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove--redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried.
"...Chopper sprays places trucks can't. Forest Service hoses their timberlands once in March or April, then calls it good, but Sanderson sprays all season, whenever we're working. Spray kills the weeds and trash trees--broadleaf plants--everything that gets in our way. It's a growth hormone--hops them up so they grow so fast they die."
Ash Davidson's lyrical and moving novel, which is taut with even pacing, pulled me in from the opening pages. Several times the foreshadowing of events had me tense with worry, and I had to force myself to slow down. I could easily have finished in a day or two, but I savored it over the course of two weeks, not wanting it to end. This is not one I'll soon forget and I'm already thinking about a re-read on audio. Fans of Richard Power's Overstory, and any of Barbara Kingsolver's novels, won't be disappointed. Highly recommend.