S.L. Stoner, Timber Beasts

 When I last visited Portland, fourteen years ago, I really enjoyed my visit to the Oregon Historical Museum. Their exhibits did a great job of telling the settler story without minimizing the genocidal practices that made possible the fairly rapid settlement of Oregon (cf the Vancouver Island Local History Society that I’ve been involved with), and I ended up buying a few books from them before throwing open my wallet at Powell’s.

Perhaps strangely, it took this long for me to get back to one of my purchases from that trip, S.L. Stoner’s Timber Beasts, which she helpfully subtitles A Sage Adair Historical Mystery. This was the first in the Sage Adair series, as it happens, but while I’m a fan of indie presses, environmental history, progressive politics, and fiction about logging, I’m not feeling too motivated to carry on with the series.

Or no, I’m motivated, because I genuinely identify with the characters and with the author’s politics. It’s just that I think I know what I’d get from the other volumes, and since I no longer feel that my reading life will be as long as I once did, I’m probably choosing against more time with Sage Adair.

Timber Beasts is a work of historical fiction, not fiction tout court, and I’m on board with the educational concept that it’s valuable to be able to see positive qualities among our ancestors. The past was not a Golden Age, it never was, and as such the conservative mindset is just plain wrong. On the other hand we’re not much smarter than those who went before us, and we’ve forgotten much of what they knew.

Stoner has done great service in recovering this useful history and imagining it into fiction, even if the ultimate effect is unduly good/bad schematic. Except for the underlying potential for violence on all sides, there’s a fairly strict binary between good guys and bad guys:

  • The bad guys (almost all male, and for good reason so that’s not a complaint) are either innately bad or raving capitalists. Either way, they’re both racist and misogynist, and they’re narrowly exploitive of both nature and other people.

  • The good guys make financial sacrifices; they risk social sacrifices; they have genuine connections with folks of various races; they share social bonds where gender doesn’t define who has the power; they appreciate nature (even if they’re involved in resource extraction); and they care for other people even if they don’t know them, not only in the abstract but by immediately making decisions to help them.

As the series’ website puts it, “the novels bring to life the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, early twentieth-century progressives whose sacrifices and courage created America's greatest middle class.” Ross Rieder, the late long-time president of the Pacific NW Labour History Association, blurbed the novel by saying that “We are not taught that our middle class came from the heroic lives and deaths of ordinary workers…. Stoner’s Sage Adair mystery gives us back our history.”

After all that, yeah, it feels petty to whinge about a dozen or so typographical errors, to wish for gray areas instead of a good/bad binary, and to pine for the trappings of literary fiction when literariness simply isn’t the point of Timber Beasts. Stoner’s giving her readers access to a different history, and as such trying to help build a different, more progressive future:

“What he was seeing was civilization, progress. But was it really? He could almost see the ghosts of those vanished Indians, men, women, and children, walking beneath the firs or wading through thigh-high prairie grasses. Who and what was civilization, anyway?” (p188)

Just to be clear, this is from a train trip Sage takes while following up a clue, so these “vanished Indians” aren’t generically vanished; he’s travelling through a deliberately emptied, specific local landscape. There aren’t many Indigenous characters in Timber Beasts, hard to tell if there are any with speaking roles in fact, so I hope that’s remedied elsewhere in the series, but that’s not my point. Rather, I quote this as an example of Stoner’s trying to move back in time the origins of that broad sense of progressivism we tend to think of naively as new. Progressive politics has a history and a trajectory, which means it needs to be defended and it needs to keep progressing.

Timber Beasts insists that it’s possible to live as a good guy, and that good guys like those in the novel existed in early 20th-century Oregon (and Seattle, in a brief episode). For me, this is a Very Good Point, and my guess is that these novels would be an empowering read for those more deeply involved in the struggles that Stoner has in mind. Utile et dulce, as Horace put it: literature needs to be useful and sweet, to instruct and delight, and I honour Stoner’s decisions and commitment behind this series.

But as Horace also wrote, “Carpe diem,” or rather “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” (which you’ll find widely translated not just as “seize the day,” but as "pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one”). I’ve got more books to read, so I don’t know that I’ll be back in Sage Adair’s world any time soon.


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