Ronald Lee Geigle was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but after heading East to attend Harvard he went on to build his career in the other Washington. First he worked for Senator Magnuson and Congressman Dicks, and later he became a public relations consultant on health policy.
But this is one of those instances of “you can take the fellow out of the Pacific Northwest, but you can’t take the Northwest out of the fellow.” For the past couple of decades, Geigle has spent his spare time working on “The Woods.” This post-Depression era novel uses the logging industry and associated labor disputes in the northern Puget Sound region as the backdrop for a story about a boy and a nation that are coming of age.
At 434 pages, this novel is as densely populated with characters as it is with virgin timber. Geigle roams from character to character, giving us multiple points of view from the owner of a start-up logging company, the widow of a logger, the aspiring politician who is wooing that widow and a Seattle shipping magnate.
But the story begins and ends with Albert Weissler, an 18-year-old who lost his father in a logging accident some years before, and now is working in the woods for his father’s old business partner.
By 1937 the country is emerging from the worst of the Great Depression, an economic cataclysm that shattered any notions of security. People are trying to rebuild their lives and figure out how to be savvier than the last time. There is less trust in paternalism and more belief in either looking out for one’s own interests, or worker solidarity.
When it comes to the unions, there are different notions about how to galvanize the masses and how to consolidate power. The men who work in the woods are split between those who belong to the A.F.L. and those who belong to the C.I.O. – the latter group characterized as being more radical.
Meanwhile, Bud Cole is trying to make a go of the logging outfit he had had to abandon years before, but this involves walking a tightrope between his workers, their unions, and his big-money backers. It also means having to contend with some cutthroat competition and the day-to-day worries of rugged terrain and harsh weather.
Superstition, sabotage, violence, political intrigue, sex and larceny keep the story humming along.
Geigle’s characters – even the minor ones – are finely shaded with ambition, compassion, desire and jealousy.
The author also provides meticulous particulars whether he is writing about bridge building techniques, logging operations, or business and political strategies.
Freighted as it is with such intense detail, “The Woods” requires that the reader settle in for a time before being able to sort through the characters and story lines. But Geigle does pull it together, mostly. While there are a few loose ends and unexplained logistics that might have been cleaned up before this book went to press, overall “The Woods” is a satisfying read.
THIS WEEK'S BOOK
WordVirgin.com – 434 pp - $16.99