Sky Fisherman very much a community read
In the literary world, Madras is one of those blessed communities. We've been adopted by an acclaimed novelist.
Like Salinas, Calif. to Steinbeck, Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Jim Harrison and a young Hemingway, Cuba to an aging Hemingway, the Desert Southwest to Tony Hillerman, the plains of Montana to Ivan Doig, Madras and Jefferson possess the inherent poetry to become a muse. We belong to Craig Lesley, one of the Northwest's finest writers.
Lesley has lived all over. But it was a few years as a young teen that he lived in Madras -- absorbing our culture at an influential age, rubbing elbows with an uncle who was one of the most colorful, well-known men ever to reside in town -- that has inspired his most famous work.
It's part our unique cultural makeup (quaint small towns, Native Americans and blue-collar, farm-rooted Anglos, and the mix, or lack of, between the two) and part our landscape (the huge vistas of sage- and juniper-covered high desert under big blue skies, timbered mountains and, of course, those rivers, especially the Deschutes) that serve as the coals of Lesley's creative fire.
Lesley burst onto the Northwest literature scene in the mid-1980s with the fantastic debut novel Winterkill. He followed that with its highly praised sequel, River Song. Both are Native American-themed works with Nez Perce Indian Danny Kachiah (a name very reminiscent of the well-known Warm Springs name of Katchia) as the lead character. River Song starts at a pow-wow in Warm Springs, and a wildfire on the reservation.
Lesley's Native American work touches on a range of regions, Umatilla, Warm Springs, the Columbia River and more. Maybe it's from where I'm reading, but the Central Oregon reservation always seems likes a pulsing heart beneath the prose, occasionally surfacing via names and language.
Then came The Sky Fisherman in 1995. This piece of fiction is embedded in Madras, the Warm Springs reservation and the Deschutes River. In the book, Madras becomes Gateway and the Deschutes is the Lost River. For even deeper connection, Lesley named his young lead character Culver.
For those who lived in Madras in the boom years of the late '50s and into the '60s, this book could probably give you deja vu. It talks of the dam construction on the Lost River, housing projects on the reservation, irrigation ditches and fields of mint. There are drownings on the Lost River, which borders the reservation, and a catastrophic fire at the plywood mill (inspired by the 1966 Jefferson Plywood blaze).
Then there's Uncle Jake, Lesley's ode to his uncle Oscar Lange and his sporting goods store. From the blinking trout sign to the bikes on the sidewalk (put out each morning, taken in at night), it's a joy to revisit what was a Madras landmark, the place where, in the '70s, my buddies and I bought our tube socks, color-sleeve baseball undershirts, our mitts, cleats and whatever ball the season required.
For newcomers to the area, Oscar's was where the Mail Copies and More complex sits today. In the '60s and '70s, Oscar's was probably the town's most well-known business, and it was a mecca for Deschutes River fishermen. And like Jake in The Sky Fisherman, Oscar was an unmatched guide on the Lost, I mean, Deschutes River.
The Sky Fisherman is a strong book had it been inspired by Elko, Nevada. The fact that it's set in a fictionalized Madras makes it required reading for anyone with an affinity for Jefferson County, its heritage and culture. I read it when it first came out, and, inspired by its no-brainer selection by the Community Read organization, I'm treating myself to it again.
If you haven't yet, now is the perfect time to introduce yourself to the work of Craig Lesley. Get a copy of The Sky Fisherman. Take part in the Community Read project. For details on the different aspects of the event, see the ad on page 3.
And Craig, thanks for adopting us.