Jamie Duclos-Yourdon’s character-driven novel offers a new frontier.
Froelich arrives in Oregon in the fall of 1851 after a long journey from Germany. During the trek, I imagine him distracted with visions of a life so full of wonder, of newness — the opposite of what he saw as an inevitably unfulfilling future back home — that he barely notices his feet are completely wet, in saturated shoes and socks.
That is, until the trek comes to an end, after hiking over the Cascades and arriving at his destination which disappoints him instantly. Then, the condition of his feet comes to consummate his overturned expectations. Bemoaning the Oregon landscape (“it’s a bog”) and its people (“coots” and “uncivilized!”) he beholds his feet and utters, “I feel like an otter. Never in my life have I been so wet.”
Within the first three pages of Jamie Duclos-Yourdon’s debut novel, Froelich’s Ladder, published in August by Forest Avenue Press, I anticipate struggling with the title character throughout the book. A frustration with Froelich takes hold, the quick emotional response taking me aback, but I think it’s only so poignant at first because with it comes an immediate care for the character — he invokes as much tenderness as he does irritation. The humor with which Duclos-Yourdon attends to Froelich makes me suspect he feels the same way.
When I meet Froelich, I also have that feeling like I’ve known him for years despite just meeting him for the first time. I’m not sure how, but what Duclos-Yourdon does in brief time is cover a lot of space in those opening pages, like page one is actually page 100; I’m in on the adventure, I’m invested and need little introduction to want to keep going.
Froelich’s brother Harald has joined him and as young white men of voting age, they are entitled to land after Congress passes the Donations Land Act in 1850 to encourage the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Harald could have easily let the opportunity go, remaining in Germany where he had humble prospects to match humble aspirations. However, Froelich, the younger and more restless of the two, persuades him. Harold settles in and accepts the land despite his brother’s objections, and I begin to see in Harald’s compliance, possible sources for Froelich’s apparent, long-held resentments. Soon after, Froelich discovers something involving Harald and develops a profound grudge.
This grievance propels the plot and while it causes Froelich to swiftly shift from a character present on the page to an absent god-like presence, a recluse and something of a myth, the novel populates with each chapter and attends to the stories of other settlers. Harald, Frolic’s nephews Binx and Gordy, a young Scottish girl named Josie, a foul-mouthed tomboy named Gak, vagabonds and a department store founder all roam the land, moving in and out of each other’s trajectories.
It’s a story depicting a lawless society in which loyal relationships need to (and do) take hold; they mean everything.
There are bad guys, violence, quirky characters, and people on quests to find other people. Characters lie and fight and do whatever they need to do on a whim, whether it is to flee or kill, and it’s a story depicting a lawless society in which loyal relationships need to (and do) take hold; they mean everything. Without, these people find they are alone, in a new, lonesome place.
Duclos-Yourdon tells the story with consistent humor that allows him to fluidly move between the light and dark nonfiction of his story. Where he is best though — where I found myself most surprised and engaged — is not in the plot’s inventions or twists. I found some outcomes to be anticlimatic, characters escaping danger a little too easily so that the build-up puttered out at the scene’s closing. But what has me looking forward to reading more from him, and provides the thrill of these adventures is meeting a new character, because as we meet more, his writing expands and becomes more committed to itself, meeting the needs of each new life story.
It’s not that he imitates or creates so many unique characters, it’s that he embodies each one he does create, entirely. I notice this when he introduces Josie, the young girl who comes from Scotland to be heir to her uncle’s business. There is a delicacy to his writing that makes its first appearance with her. She is sad, smart, and adventurous, living in the tower of a fort, her piece of the story taking place on the coast and it suits her. I delighted in reading the scenes of her walking on the beach, her heart back in Scotland, her feet in new American sand, the sea at her left, uncaring and moving from treacherous to calm. Duclous writes, narrating Josie:
The tide was now fully out. At least the beach seemed broader than it had before. Walking with her shoes and stockings in hand, Josie tried her best to ignore the continent to her left. To her right, massive boulders littered the shallows, as grand and arresting as any Gothic cathedral. While there was no one to disturb her, and with Fort Brogue only a distant concern, she was better able to appreciate the scenery: the wending arc of the coastline, crudely formed by time and erosion. Not so when she ventured into town, where everything was so garishly new, like the glue hadn’t dried yet.
If you like stories about pioneering young men exposed to the world’s frontier out west, I think you’ll enjoy Duclous-Yourdon’s debut and I think you’ll agree that getting a strong sense of place has a lot to do with why you like these stories. Duclos-Yourdon renders Oregon as a place of mystique, beauty and danger just by accurately describing what it looks like here and how the weather moves. I appreciated this greatly, because I have to stop myself all the time from superfluously describing Oregon. He doesn’t overkill us with odes to the natural landscape, conveying its magic instead by reporting it — he trusts in the land to tell its own story, and mostly knows the reader’s imagination doesn’t need to be told too much.
So with his lean poetics, Oregon cradles the farfetched imaginative aspects of this story like it could all really happen, but only here. People couldn’t get swept up by hungry clouds to float across the land in New York, but out in Oregon, in these layered autumn skies where it looks like a week’s worth of clouds and colors come together in one sunset, yeah it could happen.