December 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

A Sense of Place: Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide

I moved to the Pacific Northwest a year ago after a failed attempt at returning to my hometown in Florida. Honestly, even though it is hot (Africa-hot my brother calls it sometimes), the beach town I grew up in is still one of my favorite places in the world. I was an ocean kid, a serious ocean kid, and I can’t get enough of watching those waves. After ten years of living in Alaska (long story), I was ready for settling down in the sand forever, hurricanes be damned. But, well, there’s this whole compromise thing that is part of being married and when your husband is slowly sweating to death in front of you (and being pretty vocal about it, too) then you have to find someplace that isn’t Alaska and isn’t Florida that both of you can stand to live in. We picked Washington State and now I am a few blocks from an entirely different kind of ocean. And here’s the thing: I’m not so sure that I like the Pacific all that much and sometimes I can’t help looking at my sad surfboard and thinking that I have left my water days behind me forever. At least, that is what I thought until I read The Highest Tide.

It’s funny, but books really can rock your world if you let them. They can open you up to a whole new way of looking at your surroundings, can make you listen to different music; can invite you into a different part of the world. They can make you think twice about things that you have pretty much stopped thinking about all together. Jim Lynch’s book has done that for me and when I saw the disparate ages of his readers at a recent author visit, I realized that he has done that for a lot of other people, for a lot of other reasons, too.

First and foremost however, The Highest Tide is a Pacific Northwest book. Lynch was determined to write a book set in the area and was, in his words, “…sitting, watching and waiting for a premise to set a book in Puget Sound, and then some kids found a strange deep sea fish near my house, which started a chain reaction in my head.” What Lynch ended up writing was a story about a young boy who finds a giant squid, a living giant squid, in the shallow waters near Olympia, Washington. What happens to thirteen-year-old Miles O’Malley after that discovery is transformative; not only for him but for all the other lives he touches. Along the way, the book becomes a story about growing up, first love, enduring friendships and listening to your heart and also, in major way, the amazing marine world of Puget Sound. That is the hook that got me from the start, and then the more I read, the more I couldn’t let Miles or his ocean go.

From the very beginning of the novel, Lynch establishes that Miles has a special relationship with Puget Sound. “I grew up hearing seemingly intelligent grown-ups say ‘what a beautiful lake’ no matter how many times we politely educated them it was a bay, a briny backwater connected to the world’s largest ocean,” he writes in the book. “…Most people don’t want to invest a moment contemplating something like that [the marine life around them] unless they happen to stroll at low tide alone at night with a flashlight and watch life bubble, skitter and spit in the shadows. Then they’ll have a hard time not thinking about the beginnings of life itself and of an earth without pavement, plastic or Man.”

What Lynch wanted to capture was how impressive the Pacific Northwest is as a physical place, and he has always been surprised that there were not more strong novels set in this part of the country. Fans of regional fiction will be aware of this and it is part of the reason why David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars was so popular at first several years ago: the novelty of its location. John Thomson has an excellent young adult novel with a preteen male protagonist that I reviewed recently, A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea which is also set in the area. His choice for writing about the Pacific Northwest was easy, as Lynch explained to me recently: “I chose Puget Sound for a simple reason: the story is based on my experiences there when I was a teenager. I was born and raised in San Diego, but spent a couple summers with my aunt and uncle on the Sound. They, like Uncle Bix and Aunt Hattie [in the book], had a little cabin on a wooded point near the water. The environment there, the juxtaposition between the forest and the sea, was always enchanting to me -- and it was so different from the place I grew up; it really did seem like another world. The people, too, had a kind of hard and yet contemplative quality to them, sort of matching the character of the terrain. Wild and yet serene.”

This combination of wildness and serenity is brought home by Lynch is his novel as well, as Miles goes out on the water again and again in search of its secret treasures. The addition of this strong major marine biology element to the story was not planned, but once the idea took, Lynch set about researching it with a vengeance. “The novel took off in the direction it did, deep into the natural world, because Miles… is obsessed with the marine scene; so I had a lot to learn to capture the mesmerizing and exotic qualities of the water and tidal life. Along the way, I discovered Rachel Carson’s oceanography books and in a strange and powerful way she lit the way for me and Miles, by showing us how fascinating the marine world is.”

Carson is quoted throughout the story and Miles is an unabashed fan of her writing. She provides a critical element of scientific truth to the plot, as Miles’s discoveries immerse the characters in numerous discussions about marine sciences in general and the marine life of Puget Sound in particular. Although it might be hard for readers to believe, because he writes about the topic with such confidence, Lynch was barely aware of Carson before writing his book. “I think the cliché that says ‘write what you know’ should be modified,” he says, “to ‘write what fascinates you’. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in traffic, and that doesn’t necessarily make for great literature. If you write about something that gets richer and more fascinating the closer you look at it, maybe you’ve found material that will be worth the sweat.”

Miles’s affection for Carson, his near obsession in fact, makes him a very endearing character and explains how a thirteen-year-old could be so knowledgeable about the sea. It is balanced by his entirely teenage attraction for an older girl and his childish concerns for his parents’ deteriorating marriage and the health concerns of an elderly friend. Miles is not some water bound Doogie Howser though; he is a boy like many others -- it just happens that he has an unusual willingness to notice things that others do not. As Lynch puts it, “I made Miles thirteen because I wanted him to be at that age when he’s got an adult-sized mind trapped in a kid-sized body. I wanted him small enough to be a media darling, small enough for reporters to fawn over his words and off-the-cuff insights. And I also wanted to write through the head of a protagonist who wasn’t already sarcastic and cynical; I wanted the world to still have that brand new glimmer for him.” All of this makes Miles very appealing as a narrator and protagonist and makes his naiveté that much more obvious when dealing with the troubled girl he adores, his former babysitter, Angie.

In the relationship between Miles and Angie, Lynch has created a wonderfully deep friendship. She is not at all the girl you would expect a nature boy to be attracted to, although her attractive side is present in her “reckless rock ‘n roll charm,” as Lynch puts it. Angie’s emotional problems stem from a bipolar condition and her struggle to deal with it prompts a particularly lovely exchange between the two:

She didn’t say anything for a while, other than give me a glassy look. Everything had gone so well that I froze at the moment I’d intended to tell her that life was worth living just to be able to watch butterfly squid hatch. The words sounded so corny in my head that I waited a few beats and said, "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I can take care of you."

She squinted as if attempting long division in her head, then looked away, bent over and freed every last one of the those tiny squid.

As the reader, you love him a little more for saying that, and you love her just for understanding how much those squid matter to him.

Jim Lynch is hard at work on his next book, also set in the Pacific Northwest, this time along the U.S. Canadian border. He is also, as he puts it, “thirsty for an idea for another Puget Sound novel.” This is home for him and writing about it is something that he loves. But he understands my confusion with this ocean. “I went to Hawaii last winter for the first time and it boggled my mind to play in a warm clear ocean,” he says. “I’ve had the same sensation off Florida; it’s lovely but it always feels swimming-pool-fake; the ocean should be cold and foreboding to me.” I just need to spend some time seeing what is out there I suppose, spend some time getting acquainted with this ocean and letting go a bit of my dream of the other one. I have taken my first step: for my birthday I received a copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Now that I know what to look for, it doesn’t seem so empty here; in fact, now that I know what I’ve been missing, it seems like a fascinating place to be.

As for the book that started me on this new way of seeing the world outside my window, honestly, I’m not sure how to categorize The Highest Tide, what sort of book I should call it. It is not a romance, or a drama, or a comedy. It is even impossible to give it an age range as it would appeal to any reader over the age of twelve. In many ways it is the perfect gift book as it knows no bounds -- it offers a story in a very specific setting about a boy who sees things, who notices things, and brings about a great difference in the lives of others because of this. Mostly though, it is just a story, a perfectly wonderful and complete story, which should be only and entirely what every reader is looking for.

Hopefully, the book will draw some attention to the area that has given it such a rich and unique setting. It may also cause readers to reach for other books local to the area and learn a bit about what John Thomson discovered when he visited here so many years ago. “The newness of the place, and the interesting nature of the people, are probably what made my experiences there worth writing about,” says Thomson. “So, to be honest, the location [for my book] was drawn from real life. It happened to be the place where I did memorable things, and met memorable people who lived in a memorable landscape.”

I am discovering there are many great and wonderful things about the Pacific Northwest. The Highest Tide and A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea just happen to be two of them that can find their way to readers anywhere. Don’t view these books as guides however, see them as the excellent stories they are. Six of the adults on my Christmas list are receiving copies of Lynch’s book this year and Thomson’s should be winging its way to young readers across the country. These books are good stuff, and the fact that they are set right in my own backyard is just and added bonus.