Kate Flannery’s Northwest Passages is tinged with more than just the happy memories of a childhood world that she cannot go back to because she has grown and changed. Flannery grew up in Southwest Washington near Mt. St. Helens and much of the world that she knew as a child was obliterated in the volcanic eruption of 1980. It is gone in a permanent way that few of us can possibly understand, the forest razed, the mountain gone. It was a place for her of quiet forests that few people visited and of innocent play; however, in her memory it was isolated, and as the only girl in a family of boys and as a girl in the male dominated society of a logging town, it was a place where she had to find herself by herself. Her collection chronicles all of the complex feelings that she has about her home forest that is gone and her difficult childhood in tight, imagistic microflash essays, that place us emotionally in the world that she experienced.
The sense of how lonely and isolated she was flows through these stories. Not only was she the only girl, but she was by far the youngest person in her family. This was an isolated town with few people she might befriend. Her play then was often in imitation of her brothers, but the lessons have to be learned on her own. In ‘Before the Rain in a Western Red Cedar,’ she performs the coming of age ritual of climbing high into the trees, but she does it alone with only the story of her older siblings to guide her.
Like my brothers, I am pliable at nine years. I thread my way through the circling cedar branches, pulling up through the smallest spaces. Even from sixty feet high, I will not fall far if I lose a foothold or handhold. My tree will catch me. As I twist my way to the top, the trunk thins and turns greener . . . I begin to rock and sway in the building wind, as I had seen my brothers do (1)
This isolation is somehow meditative. She didn’t have brothers as her playmates, so she turned inward and observed the world closely, and thought deeply. And although there is no one her age, she is able to observe the older people of her world as they experienced the rituals of that world like funerals, dances, and recitals. She got to know someone named Harry Truman who chose death over leaving the base of Mt. St. Helens when he knew it was going to erupt. She was confidant to her mother and watcher of her neighbors whom she fears.
But this is not only a place of fear but a land of complex beauty as well, and her memories of it are sweet. In ‘Anything I Want above the Columbia River,’ she writes, “The clouds are racing high above the river. The winds coming from the Columbia Gorge, miles to the east, are fighting with the winds coming upriver from the ocean, miles to the west” (12). The winds work their way throughout this collection, swaying the treetops and creating private spaces for conversation with her mother even when they are outside. At one point, her mother sends her to a boarding school, but the narrator does not want to leave her beloved forests and rivers, “but my mother tells me they will all be there when I return” (12). That sense of loss and the pain of understanding impermanence is at the root of the collection’s sweetness. She loses all of it, everything that she loved at one time is now gone, but that makes the memories of her childhood world all the more magical.
Northwest Passages is fascinating in that it explores a world that few knew and none can ever come to know now. It holds the same fascination for me as writings and art from Pompeii holds. I lived most of my life on the west coast of the United States, but this is as foreign a world to me as any other place on the planet. This is a discussion of a culture whose manners seem to be gone. As Flannery mourns some of them, she seems to acknowledge that a lot of those customs should have disappeared. She both misses and has escaped that world. There is so much meaning and complex emotion for such a short chapbook and that is what makes it so exceptionally powerful.
John Brantingham 26th February 2023
Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow.
So fabulous. Congrats to Kate!♥️
Kate’s writing is lovely. A deep sense of place and the wonder of it all through a child’s eyes.