‘Temple Grove’: war over Olympic Peninsula’s old trees
In “Temple Grove,” a mystery set on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, environmental and logging interests battle over a stand of ancient trees that lies on disputed land. Author Scott Elliott reads June 2 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Temple Grove” will read at 3 p.m. June 2 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
by Scott Elliott
University of Washington Press, 272 pp., $28.95
The first white man to sight the Olympic Peninsula was probably the Greek mariner called Juan de Fuca, who claimed discovery of the strait that now bears his name while sailing for Spain in 1592.
Two hundred years later, English explorer John Meares named the highest peak on the peninsula Mount Olympus, because it seemed to him a home fit for the gods — and the Olympic Mountains moniker followed.
Skip forward another few centuries, and author Scott Elliott patterns important elements of his new novel, which is set on the Olympic Peninsula, after the Greek epic form.
Readers will find plenty of poetic resonance in “Temple Grove,” although sometimes it comes at the expense of narrative flow.
The title refers to a stand of ancient trees that lies on disputed land — both the National Park Service and the Forest Service claim jurisdiction. A veteran Park Service ranger, weary of seeing too many environmental battles over public lands won by corporate interests, goes on the offensive, orchestrating covert action. He recruits Paul Granger, an idealistic Port Angeles teen, to spike the Temple Grove trees — an act of sabotage that should protect them from being logged.
Born out of wedlock, Paul is half Makah and half mystery. He has never known his biological father, and his mother, Trace, raised him by herself through his early years. He was fed on tribal lore, and he grew up roaming the trails in the Olympics.
Now on the cusp of adulthood, Paul feels that the trees are “creatures assembled to listen and give advice, whose incomparable wisdom [is] based in silence.”
In Temple Grove, Paul encounters a gyppo logger, desperate for work, who has been hired by a shadowy corporate concern to begin felling the big trees. Their interaction turns into an extended pursuit, but as the two men scramble across the rugged terrain, the purpose of the chase begins to alter.
It becomes further complicated when FBI agents join in, as do Trace and one of Paul’s high-school classmates, a girl with do-gooding in her genes and “The Odyssey” on her reading list.
Readers will have to stay on their toes — this meticulously crafted plot is told in patches of shifting time and from multifaceted perspectives.
Elliott, an associate professor of creative writing and English at Whitman College, layers suspense with Greek myth, native legend and personal back stories to create an existentialist puzzle. He offers nuanced observations of character, family and society, lightly seasoned with a Pacific Northwest brand of magical realism.
While there is much to appreciate in these pages, there are also problems to overcome: The text is spiked with unwieldy sentences that are as thick and cumbersome as the underbrush Elliott’s characters have to bushwhack through.
Closer editing might have ameliorated this problem, might have pruned back on some repetitious overkill (toothpaste as a wood product), and might have caught the persistent misspelling of “Seiku” — Sekiu.
Finally, the novel’s ambiguous ending leaves the reader to muse — or to fume — over what really happened here.