Winter Brothers Background Notes
A season at the edge
Of all my books, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, is the hardest to fix into a genre, the one that doesn't have any easy answer when librarians plaintively ask me, "How do we classify this?"
Not a biography, not a memoir, neither history nor fiction—how about, I've taken to suggesting to the beleaguered classifiers, a journal of a journal. Or as I saw it when I undertook to write it in the winter of 1978-9, a journal of exploration. I had decided that the book would be set entirely within that winter—that is, would begin at dawn on December 22 and close at dusk on the first day of spring—here in the Pacific Northwest. And I knew that I wanted to write it, in first-person and in a tone similar to the landscape-evoking portions of my previous book, This House of Sky, from my end of the century back into the time of the frontier diarist James Gilchrist Swan, who was on hand when the American frontier reached its Pacific boundary. At times, I quite literally would be trying to explore back inside Swan's skin, to find out through him what the westering experience, and the raw new wealth of landscape, was like.
(A few words about Swan, since he was such a figure in the book: he came west in the California gold rush of 1849, from Boston. Ever after, he spent his life in a kaleidoscopic assortment of livelihoods along the Pacific shore, mostly on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. From 1859 until 1898—he died in 1900, at the age of eighty-one—Swan kept a day-by-day diary, a truly diligent and sustained record of frontier life. The diaries were available to me at the University of Washington archives in Seattle.)
Looking back on Winter Brothers now, I think I was trying to do in the field of American western history and literature something of what Loren Eiseley did with anthropology in The Immense Journey, or Richard Selzer with medicine in Mortal Lessons: an evocative crosscut of the past, done with as much exactness of detail and imaginative personal angle of vision as I could manage. To me, Winter Brothers is not really "about" either James Gilchrist Swan or me, or the both of us, but about the westering experience, by way of our eyes and brains. That is, as I intended This House of Sky to be a book about memory, Winter Brothers is about finding a place to invest one's life.