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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, September 03, 2006

To Build a Ship by Don Berry

To Build a Ship by Don Berry. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2004 (Copyright 1963 by Don Berry and first published by Viking Press). ISBN: 0-87071-040-0

This is the third piece in Don Berry's masterful trilogy exploring the early era of Oregon history, centered around Tillamook. I've already written about the first two, Trask and Moontrap, respectively. Now comes the final chapter, and what a masterpiece! This is the best yet, and a more powerful or effective novel has rarely been written.

There are only a few settlers in the Tillamook area as yet, but already they have a problem. There's no way in an out. No way to get their supplies in, or their produce out. They are isolated by mountains and forest. There are no roads, just trails, suitable for a man and a horse, but not for hauling supplies or goods. Except by sea. And now the one and only sea captain who has been willing to cross their perilous bar and visit them once a year, has died, way off on the opposite side of the continent in far off Maine. So, they decide to build their own ship.

That endeavor which soon captures all of them, heart, mind and soul. Except for their shipwright, a strange and tortured creature who causes trouble when he inexplicably falls in love with one of the Indian women. Through this seemingly small crack, evil manages to pry its way into the story, leading to a chilling denouement midway through, providing an unwelcome stress point near the center of the tale which functions in the novel much like the pass over the coastal mountain range, which must be surmounted whenever anyone travels from the Tillamook country into the central Oregon valley, or vice versa.

This unwelcome bit of byplay, in which the Indians naturally come out the worst, but serves to emphasize even more strongly the overwhelming nature of the hold the idea of the ship has over all of them. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It should be on the reading list of all native Oregonians.

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