Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book review: Wicked Portland

The most recent selection for the Five Friends book club was Wicked Portland by Finn J. D. John. Finn is a local author and long-time friend of Will Johnson, so we had the pleasure of discussing our selection (Monday night, at the Horse Brass Pub) with the author himself.

Wicked Portland is an examination of Portland's early days as a "wicked" frontier seaport.  Finn assays the Rose City in its nascence, at times confirming, at other times debunking the myths that abide. Was Portland really the most notorious shanghai city on the Pacific Rim? Who were the players that ran the town in that somewhat lawless era between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century? 

I thought I detected a certain affection in Finn's descriptions of the young city. (He's a local, after all.) He lays forth the composition of Portland's denizens: upright, respectable New England entrepreneurs, salt-of-the-earth Midwestern farmers, hard-working and oppressed Chinese immigrants, and rough-cut, sleazy gold seekers, lumberjacks, and sailors. Portland, as he describes it, is an amalgamation of all these elements. Together they created a city with a veneer of respectability and a thriving underground of sleaze (much as it exists today).

The book is chock full of colorful personalities: Boneyard Mary, the lady of the evening who made her home on a mothballed steamboat and who was the prime suspect in an unsolved murder, Jonathan Bourne, Jr., the mining magnate who used his (questionable) influence to procure a seat in the Oregon state legislature, and then the US Senate.

In a nod to today's "wired-in" technology, Wicked Portland includes QR codes which you can scan with your mobile device for more information on a particular topic. I found these codes to be more of a distraction than anything else. (Probably due to my mulish clinging to "old ways.")

But I especially enjoyed the old photographs of Portland that abound in the book. Viewing photographs and artistic depictions of Portland in the late 1800s provides a depth of understanding that any self-respecting Portlander should crave. My great-grandfather, Jesse Metzger, was born in Gresham in the 1870s, so the photos allow me to see Portland as it must have appeared to him, eight decades before I was born.

Although Finn's book is well-researched, he makes generous allowance for the ambiguous nature of truth. Some of the stories in the book source a fellow from Depression-era Portland with the colorful name of "Spider" Johnson (so far as we know, no relation to our own Will).

The ~150 years of Portland's existence is hardly significant on an historical scale. But time corrodes truth like rust on iron. As Finn acknowledges, the truth is mostly unknowable. But Wicked Portland lays a stake in the ground, a headstone for the once-and-still wicked City of Roses.

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