A moving portrait of a family struggling to make ends meet in a logging town divided over the fate of its forest.
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Why I love it
Actress (Lovecraft Country), creator of Whatthechung.com
As a San Francisco native, I care a lot about redwoods, which is how I knew I would like this 500-page tome about trees before reading a single page. Immersive and deeply-researched, Damnation Spring is the kind of book you read slowly, savoring each sentence.
Logging is the only life that Rich Gundersen has ever known. For decades, his family has eked out a life in the backwoods of California by chopping down the highly coveted and bountiful redwood trees that have dotted the landscape for centuries. By 1977, most of those trees have been cut down or protected, so when Rich stumbles into the deal of a lifetime—a plot of land that has yet to be felled—he leverages his life savings and more to make it happen.
But life is changing in the quiet ridge that Rich and his family call home. The streams have been overfished and polluted, pesticides have poisoned the groundwater, and the beautiful redwoods have been all but chopped down, and activists—or “tree huggers,” as Rich and his co-workers have termed them—have become more vocal about the irreversible destruction that has sustained the town for so long. Most chillingly, a rash of miscarriages has occurred, leading folks like Rich’s wife, who has lost several babies, to suspect: Is something in the water?
With its flinty, detailed prose and a large cast of characters, Damnation Spring is a challenging read, but not a line felt out of place. My brain felt nourished by the book’s fastidious details—the author clearly did her homework on all those logging terms—and my heart swelled and then ached for Rich, his family, and the hardships they are forced to endure. This is a moving, brilliant story from a wonderful new writer to watch.
For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has chopped a livelihood out of the redwood forest along California’s rugged coast. Now Rich and his wife, Colleen, are raising their own young son near Damnation Grove, a swath of ancient redwoods on which Rich’s employer, Sanderson Timber Co., plans to make a killing. In 1977, with most of the forest cleared or protected, a grove like Damnation—and beyond it 24-7 Ridge—is a logger’s dream.
It’s dangerous work. Rich has already lived decades longer than his father, killed on the job. Rich wants better for his son, Chub, so when the opportunity arises to buy 24-7 Ridge—costing them all the savings they’ve squirreled away for their growing family—he grabs it, unbeknownst to Colleen. Because the reality is their family isn’t growing; Colleen has lost several pregnancies. And she isn’t alone. As a midwife, Colleen has seen it with her own eyes.
For decades, the herbicides the logging company uses were considered harmless. But Colleen is no longer so sure. What if these miscarriages aren’t isolated strokes of bad luck? As mudslides take out clear-cut hillsides and salmon vanish from creeks, her search for answers threatens to unravel not just Rich’s plans for the 24-7, but their marriage too, dividing a town that lives and dies on timber along the way.
Told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and Chub, in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, this intimate, compassionate portrait of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life amid the perils of environmental degradation makes Damnation Spring an essential novel for our time.