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Montana author writes cultural history of Pacific Northwest volcanoes

For The Bellingham Herald

Exceptional Mountains by O. Alan Weltzien

I Survived: The Eruption of Mount S. Helens, 1980 byLauren Tarshis

You can take the boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the boy. That’s certainly the case with O. Alan Weltzien. He currently serves on the English Department faculty at the University of Montana-Western, but grew up in Bellevue just a few miles from the Cascade foothills. To this day, he repeatedly returns to the mountains of his youth to continue hiking and climbing them.

Now Weltzien has written “Exceptional Mountains,” a cultural history of the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest. As might be expected of an English professor, he provides scholarly analysis of the many written works that have celebrated these mountains, spanning from Theodore Winthrop’s “The Canoe and the Saddle,” published in 1862, to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder’s work stemming from his summers as a fire lookout in the middle of the 20th century, to Olympia novelist Jim Lynch’s 2012 novel, “Truth Like the Sun.”

On top of his literary interests, Weltzien also discusses the factors that have played into our expectations that the chain of volcanoes from northern California to the Canadian border will provide us wilderness opportunities, spiritual transcendence, easy-access tourist destinations, and extreme sport opportunities – all at once.

It’s enough to make a mountain want to blow its top.

As much as we subscribe to the exceptionalism these peaks have conferred on our region, Weltzien warns, our society treats these icons with surprising disregard. We have lacerated them with roads, culled them for timber, and even plumbed them for geothermal power. We have populated them with lodges and paved them with parking lots.

Despite exhortations to “pack it out,” we leave behind our trash and excrement.

Its rather lofty language and pedantic-leaning tone may put general readers off. That would be a pity, because “Exceptional Mountains” provides good food for thought.

On the other side of the scale, I’d like to recommend a volcano book for a much younger crowd. “I Survived the Eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980” is the latest offering in the bestselling “I Survived” book series. Written by Lauren Tarshis and published by Scholastic, this historical fiction series aimed at middle-grade readers is based on actual high-impact events (the sinking of the Titanic, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, etc.)

In this latest installment, Tarshis introduces 11-year-old Jessie Marlowe and her friends Sam and Eddie, who all live in a small town in the shadow of Mount St. Helens in May, 1980. Even reluctant readers will get pulled into the action-packed vortex of this story – they’ll learn a little history and volcanology along the way, and they’ll also learn about resilience, as Jess finds herself caught up in the cataclysmic eruption of May 18, and figures out a way to safety.

This series is smart and utterly gripping.

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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