Books
2:26 pm
Thu November 1, 2007

Madison House

Madison House is Donahue's novel of the turning point, the decisive historical moment in the history of Seattle, between 1885 and 1910. In a short time, the city will change from an outpost, a fairly obscure place, almost a frontier town, into the modern metropolis of the twentieth century.

There is a long tradition in Southern literature of "The Southerner in the North." A writer, usually from a small and somewhat repressive, claustrophobic place, moves to the North, usually New York City, and there, with the advantage of distance and some objectivity, writes of his home place. If he writes with candor, as Thomas Wolfe did of Asheville, North Carolina, a future novel may be entitled You Can't Go Home Again. Or he may write a memoir, like Willie Morris of Mississippi, called North Towards Home. Lately, though, we have a new phenomenon?the teacher of creative writing who finds work in a Southern college and from there writes of his home place. Here in Tuscaloosa we have Michael Martone writing book after book set in Indiana, and at Birmingham-Southern College Peter Donahue, from Seattle.

Madison House is Donahue's novel of the turning point, the decisive historical moment in the history of Seattle, between 1885 and 1910. In a short time, the city will change from an outpost, a fairly obscure place, almost a frontier town, into the modern metropolis of the twentieth century.

Seattle, like San Francisco, is, or was, a city of hills. The city fathers decide, unlike their counterparts in California, not to celebrate their hills, Nob and Telegraph, etc., but, in the interests of commerce and profit, to level them. In this novel, in a monstrous abuse of the power of "eminent domain," such as we have recently seen in New London, Connecticut and Beijing, China, huge water cannon and steam shovels are used to literally level or, as it is called, "regrade" the hills of Seattle. On one of those hills, Denny Hill, however, is Madison House, a boarding house owned by Maddie Ingram. This is Maddie's home and the home for her boarders, a collection of characters mainly poor, without wealth, power, or family connections.

Maddie resists the city's plan to level Denny Hill. She becomes a "hold-out" and finally her house sits, isolated, atop a tower of dirt, what the avaricious city fathers call a "spite mound."

Donahue tells how Maddie, his heroine, had put together her down payment in the Yukon Territory, during the Gold Rush. Clyde Hunnsler, his hero, is half Native American, half German, and an albino. These two unlikely creatures fall in love, slowly, tenderly, convincingly. Also in the house is Loye, studying to be a teacher; Chirida, an aspiring actress, whose own life becomes melodrama for a spell; Ray, a devotee of the new art of photography, who is documenting in pictures the leveling of the hills and the rise of the new Seattle; and James, the sole owner, publisher, and staff of an African-American weekly newspaper, the Seattle Sentry.

In the course of the novel, Donahue takes up the racial tensions in Seattle as pertains to both Negroes and Indians, and spends a good deal of time on the radical politics of the Pacific Northwest, where, few may remember, the International Workers of the World had their greatest successes. There is some violent as well as nonviolent resistance to the regrading, and Clyde is caught up in the spectacularly unjust criminal justice system.

Donahue, winner of the Langum Prize for Historical Fiction, is producing the same kind of historically accurate, thoroughly researched study of his city as William Kennedy did with his Albany novels, the high point of which was Ironweed, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Donahue has already published a volume of stories, The Cornelius Arms, all of which take place in an apartment building in Seattle, and is the co-editor of Reading Seattle: The City in Prose.

Besides Kennedy, however, Donahue also emulates E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime, mixing fictional and historical characters. In Madison House, the novelist Henry James comes to Seattle, and Clyde gets a chance to meet the great man, at that time writing The American Scene. Clyde is a reader, and he and Maddie read, evening by evening, the complex novels of Dickens and James to one another, without haste, savoring them as they go, and that is how to read Madison House.

 

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