Last February, while browsing the massive book fair at the Seattle AWP conference, one book at the University of Washington Press booth caught my eye. In its provisional pre-publication proof state, the cover of Skookum Summer: A Novel of the Pacific Northwest looked forlorn, with its simple image of an orange-toned crosscut view of an old-growth log rising like the sun behind a mountain range. Skookum is a Chinook Jargon word meaning good, strong, or powerful. Since I enjoy Northwest fiction and Pacific Northwest history, I picked it up.
Murder, meth and mayhem among old-growth timber, as well as a man’s quest to come to terms with his mistakes, are topics covered in Jack Hart’s debut novel. I learned that Mr. Hart had been a journalist; and I’ve found that journalists often make excellent fiction writers, so I ordered it.
Skookum Summer is the tale of Tom Dawson, a hometown guy who makes it big as a hotshot news reporter at the LA Times. After making a mistake at the Times that gets him fired, he moves back to the small, fictional Klahowya County logging town where he was raised, to be near his mother, who is undergoing cancer treatment. He reluctantly returns to work at the Big Skookum Echo, where he worked as a teenager.
As luck would have it, the summer of 1981 is filled with a murder investigation and several other big news stories that Tom investigates. In examining the underbelly of the town, he also unravels the mystery of himself and the self-centered hubris that has been his downfall.
Jack Hart does a wonderful job of painting a picture of small town Olympic Peninsula life during a time when everything was changing. Characters are well developed and the plot is interesting and engaging throughout the book. Some of the backwoods dialect reflected in the dialog becomes somewhat tiresome, and one of the storyline resolutions is not foreshadowed thoroughly enough to be believable or satisfying. However, overall, this is a very enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys Northwest fiction.
On a side note, after I ordered the book, I looked up Jack Hart on the two book sites that I frequent. I found that Jack Hart had published a large quantity of gay sex books, which I could not reconcile in my mind. Someone who writes this type of novel, and expects to be taken seriously as a writer, does not also publish books about gay sexual encounters (at least, not under the same name).
Fortunately, Jack Hart, the former journalist and educator, realized that his account was meshed with the gay sex writer of the same name and later took measures to disconnect them. Now you may look him up and find this novel, as well as a couple excellent books on the craft of writing nonfiction-but keep in mind, you may need to add his middle initial “R” to avoid confusion.
I was fortunate enough to attend Mr. Hart’s book launch event at Elliott Bay Book Company and found him to be a modest man, who shared his experience of transitioning from a nonfiction writer to a novelist. He mentioned that he humbly received advice on the craft of fiction writing from many friends and colleagues-some of which he shared with us-and he stated that writing fiction was much harder than he anticipated.
The Northwest has some excellent writers, such as Jim Lynch (who wrote a blurb for Skookum Summer), Jonathan Evison and David Guterson, among many others. Jack Hart belongs in this category and I hope he writes more novels that are set in the PNW.