Race for the Dying
Steven F. Havill
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Race for the Dying is set in 1891 as Dr. Thomas Parks, freshly graduated from medical school, arrives in a tiny logging community on the Washington coast to join the medical practice of his father's old friend, Dr. John Haines. "What he could see was brown and gray, dismally wet, wretchedly muddy, and ramshackle .... In one sheltered cove, the water itself was brown and corduroy with an enormous floating island of logs that covered a dozen acres."
Hazards of all kinds abound in tiny Port McKinney, from the routine dangers of the sawmill to the terrain itself. Parks has barely stepped off the boat when, rushing to answer an urgent call for help, he tumbles off a cliff with his borrowed mule.
"Doctors make the worst patients," Haines tells him. Parks proves him correct. Before he is properly healed, Parks also proves himself indispensable as a doctor. His integrity and passion for medicine drive such a compelling story that readers may find themselves wondering why Race for the Dying is billed as a murder mystery. Parks's passion is for healing, not investigating, and though bodies drop at regular intervals, most of the deaths have less-than-mysterious causes.
The real mystery involves the munificent salary offered to Parks; an expansive clinic described in Haines's forthcoming medical tome but nowhere to be seen in primitive Port McKinney; and the verbally deft Dr. Riggs, whose vital work seems not to involve the actual treatment of patients. Before the final explosion of violence, these details have been explained. A further mystery is never elucidated: How and why did Haines, seemingly a fine physician, become so involved with the questionable Dr. Riggs?
Scene by scene, the writing in Race for the Dying is of literary quality, vivid and evocative. If the full arc of the story never achieves the sense of illumination expected of a literary work, it's still a ripping good tale of the sort that keeps readers inconveniently awake past the midnight hour. (2009, 322 pages)
Race for the Dying is one of five mysteries on my "Best Historical Novels
I Read in 2009" list.
More about Race for the Dying at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Interview with author Steven F. Havill
Other novels set in logging towns:
Serena by Ron Rash (2008), about a North Carolina lumber baron and his wife in the 1930s. More info
A Brother's Blood by Michael White (1996), a mystery about the disappearance of a German prisoner of war from a Maine logging camp in 1945. More info
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964), a contemporary novel (set in the early 1960s) about a logging family in the Pacific Northwest. More info
Nonfiction about the history of logging in the Pacific Northwest:
Deadfall: Generations of Logging in the Pacific Northwest by James LeMonds (2000), about the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest from the early 1900s into the present. More info
Glory Days of Logging: Action in the Big Woods, British Columbia to California by Ralph W. Andrews (1956), pictures and text about logging in the Pacific Northwest from the 1890s into the early 20th century.
The Oregon-American Lumber Company by Edward J. Kamholtz (2003), pictures and text about the history of this Oregon logging company from 1922-1957. More info
At the Movies:
Sometimes a Great Notion, the 1971 film directed by and starring Paul Newman, based on Ken Kesey's novel about a logging family in the Pacific Northwest.
"Historic Logging in the Pacific Northwest" at the VanNatta Logging History Museum of Northwest Oregon
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