Join the conversation : book discussion in progress

Kick off your shoes, don’t mind the dog — I may be here or I may be briefly offline. Either way, if you’re already here and have something to say about John Straley, THE BIG BOTH WAYS, mysteries, Alaska fiction, or anything else relevant to our first online book discussion, please go ahead and start adding your comments here. I’ll check back frequently during the next 24 hours (Saturday evening through Sunday evening); comments are welcome after that, as well. The entire book discussion will be contained in the comments following this post.

Where should we start? Well, that’s up to us. Did you read the book? Did you relate to some characters more than others? How about the setting or historical background? No ideas too big or too small. Looking forward to hearing from you…

27 thoughts on “Join the conversation : book discussion in progress”

  1. I haven’t read “The Big Both Ways” yet, but I’m very much interested in reading it. I like mysteries like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.

  2. “The Big Both Ways” departure from the Cecil Younger series was interesting to me. Straley had previously seemed to be using the place of the Southeast Panhandle (and Sitka in particular) as a character–shaping the story and interacting with the other characters. In this book, it is this very specific time in history that drives the story, and the settings take the more conventional place as background.

  3. That's an interesting starting point, littlebird. I agree about the importance of the historical period (1930s depression-era, with "reds" and union politics in the mix– more on that in a minute). But unlike you, I thought the setting was essential, and maybe the book's strongest element.

    THE BIG BOTH WAYS, to explain to people who haven't read the book yet, refers to the Inside Passage itself — a passage that acts like a river running both ways, due to the tides and currents. I felt the story got its momentum when the main characters (Slip, Ellie & Annabelle) were finally in the dory and coping with the harrowing environment, which Straley depicts in realistic detail. (I just went searching for something to quote but couldn't find a single passage that captured it all; what I'm left with is the sense of hissing waves and sloppy seas and the feeling of being constantly wet and cold.)

    Here is a description from p. 135, of a mat of seaweed "with sticks laced through the rubbery fronds. As the boat swung on the anchor chain the mat pushed against the hull, and the pieces of wood, which were as varied in size as human bones, rattled against the hull." I can definitely see and hear that, plus it adds a nice sense of foreboding. There's no doubt Straley has keenly observed all the places he is describing.

  4. For me, all John Straley’s writing is infused with a feeling of homecoming. I can open any of his novels, including ‘The Big Both Ways’ which I read as soon as it came out in spring, open any one, anywhere at all, start reading, and instantly feel comforted, reassured, safe. And this is not because unpleasant things don’t happen. We know that his books aren’t like that. Lots of bad things happen to his characters – physical violence, emotional abuse, unfortunate circumstances, foolish decisions – and all those awful things lead to pain and loneliness and something close to despair. But the despair never wins.
    Straley’s short story, ‘My Heart Went Boom’, perhaps shows that sense of hope and compassion most succintly, but look at these sentences from ‘The Big Both Ways’: “He wished their lives could at least be like sitting on this dark and empty street. It was sad, sure, but there were lights on in the other houses, the dogs were sleeping by the stove, and soon enough it would be morning again” (p. 114).
    All the sensory details in Straley’s writing combine with his use of figures of speech and conversations – both between characters and inside of characters – to create powerful scenes which absorb me. And as a result, his compassion for his characters also flows into me.
    Look at this bit from ‘Finding Lou’, the story written as a poem which is found in one of the short story collections edited by D. Stabenow:
    “This is how life goes:
    We dream and cross each other’s dreams like the ripples some raindrops leave.
    Sometimes we pay attention but often, not in time.”
    When I first read those lines, I copied them onto a piece of paper that I carried around in my pocket for days. They changed me, changed how I viewed other people, how I treated them.
    I think reading Straley’s writing is like being loved by a good friend. It comforts me and gives me courage to enjoy life again.

  5. A related point about historical detail, because I know how hard it is to throw in too much of what you’ve discovered through research. Here’s an example of Straley using just one little unfamiliar detail to build authenticity in a scene – something I really JUST LIKED. P. 183, in the dining room of the Admiral Rodman, a steward is pouring hot water on the tablecloths so china won’t slide back and forth. Very cool detail, not at all overdone. It was unfamiliar to me, but believable and interesting.

  6. Hi sophie R – I sent my last comment before yours showed up. Thanks for being here! And I should add my thanks to zkat and littlebird as well.

    Wow, what warm and wonderful thoughts, and this takes us into the subject of how a writer reaches us emotionally, which is great terrain. Thanks for referencing those other stories, which weren’t familiar to me.

    I’d read Straley before, but I was once again surprised to realize that he manages to write mystery without using a lot of gore or threat, despite what’s actually happening in the plot. Most characters seem essentially good; there’s a sense of innocence. (But how? There are murders and thugs/goons etc — I can’t quite explain it. Maybe it is the main characters’ motivations, which are to find home and connect with others.) There was a boat captain in the book who I expected to turn out to be more of a creep (in relation to the character of young Annabelle), but the story didn’t take that turn. The book seemed almost old-fashioned to me, as if it had been written in the 1930s.

  7. Well written, Sophie, R. I agree that Straley evokes a nice sense of loss and longing and searching for a place to belong. Andromeda, you’re certainly right about the evocative descriptions of the Inside Passage. I really liked those, too! I still feel that it is the ebb and flow of historical events and attitudes that affect the characters more than the place and weather. In fact, the Inside Passage “River” with its confusing flows serves as a nice metaphor for historical forces. How much does one fight the currents of the day, battle them to force your personal vision to become reality–or does one drift along effortlessly, seeking out the favorable tides and currents and being ready to grab a pleasant eddy as soon as one presents itself?

  8. I have been a Straley fan from the get-go because I grew up in SE Alaska and relate strongly to each and every character. My grandparents came to Ketchikan in 1931, and told stories of how amazing the water voyage was in those days (20 days from Seattle to Ketchikan with stops in every Hole-In-The-Wall cove where anyone might live to deliver groceries or lumber or whatever they had ordered) so The Big Both Ways resounded with authenticity. My dad also day fished out of a dory out of Ketchikan in the 1930’s, rowing out every morning before dawn to hand troll no matter the weather. The descriptions, the weather, the changes that happen in the blink of an eye, the expected unexpected, make The Big Both Ways a novel I’ve read twice already. The first time was to get Cecil Younger out of my ‘head’ as a voice, and the second time to connect more fully with the new story and my own memories of life in SE in the days before statehood. I’m picking this one up again tonight to read for the 3rd time. It’s just one of ‘those’ books whose characters stay with you for days and like the rattling wood caught in kelp, keep returning to haunt your nights. Its not just a ‘nice’ read, its a GOOD read. And those are the books I keep on the shelf for years so I can pick them up whenever I need comfort food.

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    So great to hear those personal connections to the story, Anonymous. A great review that will draw in other readers. Thank you!

  10. I liked George Hanson (the Seattle police detective). His personal story (the loss and longing I mentioned earlier) really resonated.

  11. sophie r writes wonderfully about this wonderful book. And as Anonymous says, it’s a genuine keeper, to go back to time after time. I loved the Younger books, but find The Big Both Ways more mysterious, more genuine, perhaps more crafted. It feels like all the years that went into its making are there in the background, filling in the spaces.

    Favorite character has to be Ellie who has made a place in my life since the first time I met her–though because I care so much about her the various perils that Straley exposes her to made me seriously nervous. I kept reading cautiously, ready to put the book down if it got too scary.

    Warning: if you cry copiously at television commercials or any wedding, this book is a big weeper.


    “A young woman with stringy black hair stepped out onto the porch. She held a baby cocked on her hip in a way that made Slip think that she had lots of babies in the house.” (p. 23). What a great line.

    I’ve just started the book, but I really like the first chapter. There is a syrupy feeling; the characters are all caught up in the inescapable complexities of real life.

    Wouldn’t it be fun if we could listen to this book read by Humphrey Bogart!

  13. It seems like everyone can connect in some way to ‘The Big Both Ways’. Perhaps that’s only because our personal memories and emotional experiences overlap with places and events in the novel. On the other hand, I’ve read all sorts of novels where I can objectively say that I can in some way connect to the story, but I still don’t care about it. Straley seems to consciously, or unconsciously, help us care about his story.

    Look at p. 173: “This had always been his favourite time: these few moments before the day began. These early mornings, when the damp grass began to unbend and the birds began to stir.” The choice of ‘these’ as opposed to ‘the’ draws me into the scene as opposed to standing back and watching it. Straley goes on, giving us more to see and feel about his character until this paragraph: “All he had ever wanted was a place on this earth. a home where he understood himself. And it was beginning to seep into his bones that this would never happen.” Because I’ve entered the scene, I now care about Slip.

    Something similar happens on p. 246: “It was a sagging wood-frame house that smelled predominantly of sweat on wet wool. The flooring was soft and the walls were thin. Even before she woke up on that stinking parlor divan,…” Because I’m already smelling and feeling and seeing the room, I am ready to feel for Yvette. And when Straley used ‘that’ instead of the much weaker ‘the’ to describe the divan, I can emotionally identify because I’ve often been irritated and thought “that …..!” And now I care about the whorehouse madam.

    I am curious, though. Is it simply skillful writing that draws us in, or does something invisible happen between readers and writers? Does a worldview somehow permeate a writer’s work in a way that isn’t controlled? Are we readers hearing some silent song?

  14. It’s been a few weeks now since I devoured The Big Both Ways, but a couple of aspects of it have really stayed with me, and you all have touched on some of them. The setting, of course, is so vividly described and manages to reflect a melancholy harshness and beauty that is also mirrored in the characters themselves. Especially Slim and Ellie. Slim seems tossed about, wistful and aimless. Ellie was kind of a mystery to me, in a good way. She was tough and hard but also vulnerable. Of all of the characters, though, Annabelle was my favorite — a great contrast with everyone else. She is a bright spot in the book, funny and sure of herself, and I adored her little yellow bird. I kept thinking oh please don’t let anything bad happen to her.
    Don’t mean to go on and on, but I also wanted to add that I was impressed with Straley’s language choice. He managed to convey the place and times in the words he chose. The language itself was very evocative.

  15. Forgot to add — I love Mama for Obama’s comment about Humphrey Bogart. I wish I had that in my head when I was reading it. What a perfect voice for this story!

  16. Fan from Denmark

    I thought this was a great book. “The Big Both Ways” like all of Johns books cause me to question my stereotypes… Who are Alaskans, What were the 30s like, What is a mystery.

    His characters including the era and the place are complex and they are continuously developing all the way to the very end of the book.

  17. The Big Both Ways is a wonderful piece of writting and all the comments are right on so I’d just like to comment on the book itself; it’s so nice to pick up a book and feel the weight of high quality paper, to see the whiteness of the pages in a first rate binding. The cover art by Ray Troll is worth the price of the book alone. Hope Mr Straley keeps up his association with this publisher.

  18. I, too, appreciate the way the novel was printed. I especially liked the size of the print, the whiteness of the paper and the wide margins. Thank you, anonymous, for drawing my attention to that feature.

    Does anyone find this novel – and Straley’s other novels – as humourous as I do? Sometimes the humour comes from little expressions such as one on p. 287 referring to someone who wasn’t going to come back: “That fellow was a stick and not boomerang.” Sometimes it comes from how the characters freely admit they don’t care for someone at all but feel obliged to be kind anyway such as on p. 88 when Ellie, who “liked men in the same way some people liked racehorses: it was fun to rate them and some of them were even beautiful, but you couldn’t imagine yourself owning one…” decides she has to help Slip nevertheless.

    Straley seems to be a master at detached affection: a courtesy that starts as some sense of obligation but turns into true concern. Juxtaposed with crime and a rough physical environment, that kindness is at first funny and then joyously endearing.

  19. Good morning everyone — I’ve got my coffee now, and am so pleased by the new comments that showed up since I last looked. Hello Eowyn and others! And wow — a fan from Denmark, what a great surprise. Thanks for continuing to add your thoughts Sophie — you have a great way of describing what the rest of us are trying to pinpoint. I’d forgotten that line about the boomerang, and you’re right, Straley has an understated but effective sense of humor. I prefer that kind of humor to some of the over-the-top, elaborately hilarious styles I sometimes read — especially when that hilarity lacks humanity.

    To name another book that is nothing like this one, I was just picking up “The Corrections” by J. Franzen for a second read, a magnum opus that many others have tried to emulate, but the hardest thing to emulate is the generosity of the author in creating his sympathetic characterizations. Most good writers are ventriloquists and can manage to write in a lot of different voices, but you can always see some of their natural world view shining through — whether they find it easy to see the best or worst in their characters.

    Onward to other book comparisons: I am not a regular mystery reader. So when I detect a little bit of that 30s noir feeling in Straley, I can’t say how that compares to other mysteries. I think he is walking an interesting line between literary and commercial fiction, with more attention to characterization and setting, and a more leisurely approach to pacing, putting him in the lit category. But maybe other readers out there can help us with context. Where does Straley’s writing fit or what does it remind you of? If someone likes Straley’s books, what else should they read?

  20. P.S. Just saw how my comment above might be misunderstood. When I said Corrections was nothing like this book, I meant in terms of story, scope etc — not in terms of humane outlook. My point is that Straley’s outlook IS humane.

  21. Wonderful comments on a book that grows on the reader in all the right ways. Like Andromeda, I felt especially pulled into the story when it moved onto the water. Straley’s eye for detail and understated style add rich texture to a story that, at the start, feels a bit detached, like Steinbeck’s, they are drifting in a society that barely notices them, except when they’re perceived as troublemakers. Like littlebird and eowyn, I was most drawn to George Wilson, Annabelle, and Buddy. Tender aspects of their lives juxtaposed with Slip and Ellie, who remained mysteriously and necessarily guarded until the end. Love the notion of Humphrey Bogart as a reader.

  22. Other writers that remind me of Straley? It’s easy to find the obvious answers: other Alaskan mystery writers, other people who write about the sea, other writers with a strong sense of place. Just do a subject search on any library computer catalog. But the real question, of course, if more subtle: who writes books that remind me of the feeling I get from Straley’s stories?
    Among the mystery writers, perhaps Eric Wright whose police novels are set in Ontario and Peter Robinson whose Inspector Banks novels are set in Britain. The main characters in those books have a humbleness that reminds me of Straley’s writing.
    If I’m looking for an ability to survive despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances, there are a couple of Canadian novels, ‘Three Day Road’ by Joseph Boyden and ‘Monkey Beach’ by Eden Robinson.
    If I’m looking for the sense of joy that quietly lives in all of Straley’s writing, I’d read some of Cynthia Rylant’s books for children: ‘The Wonderful Happens’ and ‘Missing May’.
    Reading all those stories leads me to think that perhaps adulthood is being able to walk with our wounds, being able to live without defeating evil and still seeing beauty in life.

  23. Thanks for the reading suggestions — and the additional insights into Straley’s style. Do we have time to pursue another angle of Straley’s work? I enjoyed the history and the depiction of historic Southeast Alaska, for example in the cannery scenes, with Chinese, Indian, Filipino workers etc. I admired Straley’s familiarity with the social and technical details, right down to the tools, housing, and worker lifestyles.

    Another historical thread: Early in the story, he explains some of the Floodwater operative history to us — private security guys who work alongside, and sometimes in opposition to, the regular cops. (I assume he based this on fact.) The name “Floodwater” made me think of “Blackwater” and prompted me to check out the origins of the name “Blackwater” (private security contractors who have worked in Iraq and in the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone). According to Wikipedia, there’s no apparent link between Floodwater and Blackwater — the latter was so named because they built their training facility in a region called the Great Dismal Swamp (what a name!) on the Virginia border.

    A tangential thought, perhaps, but I like how Straley was able to weave historical details — like private security — that still resonate today.

  24. My first impression of this book about the mid-30s anarchists trying to organize workers in Washington state and the territory of Alaska in the face of violent union organizers and private security companies was that it was overwritten, bordering on purple prose (ring girdling his finger; birds on their pipe cleaner legs; blood oiling over his white shirt; the “intricate guts” of a watch, for some short examples). After a lush introductory portion, though, the beauty of the writing provided the perfect ironic background for a desperate and violent story.

    I also liked that the novel used natural beauty, especially for the harrowing long sea trip through Alaska’s Inner Passage in a dory(!), for a story of huge discomfort and pain, struggle, and finally, violence. The horror of the story made a deeper impression on me because it was delivered in the beauty of the language Straley uses. Detail may sometimes seem overdone, but it does give a vivid picture of the places and the times and the people he presents to us. It is hard to imagine the real life experiences here in Alaska, but Straley goes a long way to making them alive and memorable. Annabelle and her bird are the best leitmotifs I’ve seen in a while!

  25. Hi Kay, glad to see you here! I appreciated the fact that you included some more initially critical comments — great to hear from all sides — in addition to your praise.

    Things are starting to wrap up but people should feel comfortable leaving additional comments at any time. It’s been a great conversation!

  26. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    And thanks also to Deb V! (Have I thanked everyone? I hope so.) This was a great online experiment and it may be too early to wonder, but I WILL be wondering if it we should do it again in, say, six months. I wonder what Alaska book would summon a group of participants as large and as interesting as this one?

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