By Izzy Stringham
Special for The Sopris Sun
“Damnation Spring” is a remarkable debut novel by Ash Davidson, and easily one of the best to come out in the last year. Its well-crafted plot and narrative, along with its complicated yet relatable characters, made it a hard-to-stop read.
The story follows the Gunderson family living on the northern California coast in 1977. The local lumber industry has been the town’s only job, and as the last old growth forests are either cut down or protected and turned into parks , climber Rich Gunderson makes a risky decision to secure his family’s future.
Meanwhile, his wife Colleen faces her own tragedy, having suffered multiple miscarriages while also working as a midwife to help her neighbors deliver their own children. The town they live in is remote and harsh, but full of natural beauty that includes the trees and salmon tracks that predate the founding of America.
The life of a woodworker is risky; money is never safe and residents are tied to the logging business in ways they cannot escape. Various characters enter the plot, some supporting the company and others trying to show the damage done, both to the environment and to the people who live there.
The natural world plays a large role in “Damnation Spring,” as does the damage caused by logging, spraying, and clearcutting of the forest. Almost like a character in their own right, the woods and streams are a place both loved and ruined by the people who live there. They wouldn’t go anywhere else, but their own destruction of the forest is starting to strain their hand.
The author, Ash Davidson, is unafraid of the complex issues this raises and, with empathy and humility, acknowledges the loggers trying to make a living, the Native Americans trying to keep their traditions alive, and the strong hands of capitalism and the l timber industry trying to make money at all costs. His nuance goes much further than simply blaming. It’s easy to see a problem as good or bad, black or white, and this novel shows just how complicated things really are. Good people are everywhere, and Davidson’s characters are prime examples of that.
The many layers of the plot are told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen and their son, as a single year of their lives progresses. Davidson’s prose and dialogue were so compelling that I found myself completely immersed in the personal stories. The characters started to feel like friends or neighbors, simple people living complicated lives, with all the dreams, desires and tragedies that are part of being human. Davidson gave them humor, wisdom and love. Even within their worst mistakes, I found myself attached to the characters as if they were my own family, and fervently hoped for the best.
When the book came to its dramatic In conclusion, I felt like I had spent the year living in this city and had personally experienced everything that followed. Davidson weaved all the threads of the story to a satisfying ending, and when I closed the last page, it felt like I was leaving old friends behind.
I highly recommend “Damnation Spring” to anyone who enjoys a well-paced novel or memorable characters. The themes of disaster and environmental upheaval couldn’t be more relevant, and Ash Davidson’s superb dialogue, and his innate understanding of what motivates people, make this novel a moving read.
“Damnation Spring” is currently nominated for the Reading The West award and paperback copies are available from White River Books in Carbondale.