Oregon has a history of discrimination against people of color. Three infamous “exclusion laws,” passed in 1848, 1850, and 1857, banned blacks as Oregon sought to become a state; it even wrote the exclusion of blacks into its constitution:
“No free negro or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein; and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such free negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the State, or employ or harbor them therein.”
As the Washington Post reports:
“Oregon is the only state in the United States that actually began as literally whites-only,” said Winston Grady-Willis, director of Portland State University’s School of Gender, Race and Nations. ‘Even though there was subsequent legislation that challenged those statutes, the statutes were not removed from the books until 1922.’”
In the 1920s, Oregon had the largest KKK organization [per capita] west of the Mississippi River. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), in a history of the KKK, observed:
“Oregon in the spring of 1921 was as unlikely a potential Ku Klux Klan stronghold as any state in the nation. It was peaceful and quiet, its fine school system had virtually banished illiteracy, and no one was making fiery speeches about race (97 percent of the people were white) or immigrants (87 percent were native born).
Incredibly, within a year of the arrival of a single Klan salesman, Oregon was so firmly in the grasp of the hooded nightriders that the governor admitted they controlled the state.”
This history forms the backdrop for Lyndsay Faye’s latest historical fiction/crime novel, which is set in Portland, Oregon in 1921. As with her previous historical fiction books, each chapter is preceded by actual excerpts of writings from that period which are germane to the action, adding a great deal of insight into what the atmosphere was like at the time.
Alice James, 25, a “ward” of an Italian mob boss in Harlem, has reason to flee for her life, and gets on a train going west. By the time she gets to Portland, Oregon, she is in mortal danger from a festering gunshot wound. A black train porter, Max Burton, takes her to the Paragon Hotel in the city for treatment. The Paragon Hotel [patterned after Portland’s historic Golden West Hotel] is the only hotel in Portland where people of color are allowed, and because Max has to touch Alice to help her – indeed, he has to carry her – he can’t very well show up with her at a white place lest he be lynched. The denizens of the hotel put her in a room and get their doctor to stitch her up.
Before long, Alice feels she has new friends and a new “family” of sorts. But the wonderful cast of characters who live and work at the hotel are harboring a slew of secrets, which come oozing out of the woodwork after a little boy who lives at the hotel goes missing. Blacks can’t safely comb the surrounding woods without risking being part of a Ku Klux Klan bonfire, and most of the police won’t protect them. On the contrary, blacks need protection from the racist and corrupt police.
As the chapters go back and forth in time, we also learn about Alice’s past in mob-ruled Harlem. Her life was dangerous in both places, but she has attributes that help her survive in both. But she is white; the survival of the others is up in the air.
The story ends with a wonderful “It’s just Chinatown” coda as Alice finally leaves the Paragon Hotel:
“…the Paragon Hotel spits me out, I turn to look back at it. Its dozens of windows with its hundreds of guests, all of them hiding something. All of them fighting for something. All of them frightened of something. That’s the kicker about hotels – they aren’t homes, they’re more like the paragon of waiting rooms. … you burrow underneath one another’s surfaces, air the cupboards, life the drapes, and everyone is unhappy, and everyone is searching, and everyone is both cruel and kind.”
Discussion: There are wonderful aspects to this story, not the least of which are bits of historical information provided by the author. Her language, too, is lovely, as she veers from the slang of the time to more dazzling and timeless prose, such as these descriptions of the vistas in Portland, so different from what she grew up with in Harlem:
“The skies are enormous, flung open and sprawling. A bucket of spilled cerulean.”
“I took a streetcar in the salmon sunrise…”
Even the horrific is at times couched in eloquence, as she muses about how the blacks in Portland might think about death (reminiscent of the song “Strange Fruit,” sung so movingly by Billie Holiday):
“Wondering when their own time comes, whether they’ll drift up to heaven from their warm beds or from the cool rustling of strange tree branches.”
When she sees a sliver of the moon it makes her think about the secrets she carries, and the secrets carried by everyone she has met:
“The moon has risen, slender and delicate. Seeming awfully small. But that’s the trick about the moon… that doesn’t mean the rest of the moon isn’t there. Only that it’s waiting for the right time to be visible. Showing sharp white sickles of itself until suddenly it’s flooding wheat fields and coastlines, shocking everyone over how much was hidden all that while.”
The theme of a paragon, or exemplar, enters in the story in several ways, most notably in Alice’s “salute” at the end of the book:
“So here’s to the saps and the sinners. To survival of the fittest and the terribly unfit. To the paragon of animals in all our many forms. . . . .”
Rating: This is another terrific book by this author. (I can’t think of one that hasn’t been excellent.) Highly recommended!
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019