Bookmonger: Tales of life on Key Peninsula entertain, offer insight

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 6, 2014 

Here's another book from Plicata Press, the Gig Harbor publishing cooperative that marshals local talent of all kinds in order to bring new books with a uniquely Northwest feel to our bookshelves.

"The Woodpecker Menace," by Key Peninsula writer Ted Olinger, is a collection of short stories that were inspired by life on the KP. Accompanying pen and ink illustrations, as well as the splendid cover art, were conceived by artist Tweed Meyer, another Key Pen resident.

If you haven't taken a Sunday drive for awhile, the Key Peninsula is one of those places that evokes the Puget Sound region of 50 years back: country roads, picturesque inlets, lots of trees, and characters galore. Not quite insular (it is connected to the mainland after all), it is still a community that, as the book jacket touts, is "too small to have a town."

Olinger introduces us to a couple that has set up housekeeping on the KP with their young son, and discovers soon enough that the bucolic life does not mean a life free of irritation. Take, for example, the Northern flickers that use the roof flashing as the venue for their territorial drumming concert at five o'clock every morning. The ensuing battle for primacy is the subject of Olinger's first story, and by the end of the tale, the big W goes in the birds' column.

Subsequent stories introduce us to human neighbors up and down the long, skinny peninsula. There are the tykes who play T-ball, trick-or-treat at the community center, and earnestly study bugs; there's the anarchist/poet geezer and there's the militant organic gardener.

In one story, Olinger focuses on a clutch of malcontents who periodically gather at the local bar to drink and grouse about change of any kind. He writes, "They could not even agree what to call themselves, rejecting several variations of 'The Society For,' 'The Society Against,' and 'The Society of,' and had come to be known by outsiders simply as that Society."

The grumps are fighting the tide, of course. Change inevitably happens, but Olinger's adumbrations are so deft that you may not even see it coming.

When you begin reading this book, you may well think you're in for a folksy perspective on rural life - but that isn't the half of it. While "The Woodpecker Menace" surely contains keenly etched details of Puget Sound rusticity - the taste of moonshine, the remedy for moles, the way to toss a fish - there is also quiet profundity.

Each of these stories works as a stand-alone vignette, but midway through the book, as some of the characters reappear, you'll realize you're going to be haunted by them long after you close the covers.

Anecdotal on the surface, Olinger's stories also provide contemplations on parenthood, aging, community, and loss. They quietly explore different ways of being kind. They are rich in symbolism and metaphor.

In short, this collection of linked tales works on many levels. You'll want to read these stories again and again.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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