Subduction by Kristen Millares Young / Red Hen Press / 978-1-59709-892-2 / 240 pages / April 14, 2020
What happens when the world as you know it changes course? When your seemingly rock-solid life suddenly becomes thin and porous? Such is the case for Claudia, a Latinx anthropologist based in Seattle, who is the complex protagonist of Subduction, a debut novel by Kristen Millares Young. Committed to a long-term research project documenting song and story sharing of the Makah people, the book begins with an image of Claudia on a ferry pulling away from Seattle, a city that holds her personal and professional struggles. She is heading for Neah Bay, the most northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, and Young offers luminous descriptions of this distinct passage to the coast. “Eagles and vultures wheeled through the gloaming over razed forests and colossal silvered stumps that sprouted frail versions of themselves.”
While Claudia dutifully continues her work, interviewing elders and reviewing past field notes and transcripts, she encounters Peter, an estranged son who recently returned home. His mother, Maggie, who suffers from intermittent memory loss, is a primary and vital source for Claudia’s work. She admits that, “Maggie would give her what she wanted, would tell her things about spirit animals and songs that she wasn’t supposed to reveal to anyone outside of her family.” Peter’s presence, however, forever alters the course of her research and her reasons for working within this sovereign nation in this remote corner of Washington.
Organized in twenty-four chapters, Subduction invites the reader into the daily life and ecology of this community with astounding accuracy and respect. From the store in town, to Hobuck Beach, Young’s delicate yet commanding grasp of place paints a believable landscape with a handful of real-to-life characters—none sensationalized nor trivialized. While questions remain about Claudia’s family history and core motives, the book as a whole, does the work of developing each main character honestly, and with real heft.
The story of Subduction oscillates between Claudia and Peter’s point of view. Both riddled with regrets, their initial meeting seems fated. Claudia transgresses over the line between near-distant researcher and kin, dredging up some of her deepest fears. The murky confluence of Claudia and Peter, including Claudia’s reflections on her failed marriage and abandonment issues and Peter’s grief over his father’s death and guilt over leaving his mother to fend for herself for so many years, is palpable. Throughout the book, Young does a brilliant job of foraging into the minds of her main characters without telling too much. She trusts her readers to refuse traditional and gendered assumptions through these imperfect, yet brave, characters.
Subduction is embedded in the ecosystems of the Olympic Peninsula, as evidenced by Young’s profound descriptions of present-day habitat and past geological events. Describing the first overlook at Cape Flattery, she writes “Dark water broke over mussels and rocks, draining white foam, rising through green curls of kelp. Waves boomed through sea caves that riddled the sandstone cliffs shuddering the earth beneath their feet.” We are changed by these enduring characters as the forces of nature and family, history and colonization transform them.
At the heart of this narrative is a question of belonging. Young writes, “The stories we tell each other matter, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter the most.” It is also an homage to the resiliency of place-based people. Transcending the cultural facets of this unique story, one can’t help but share in a collective feeling of hope after reading this novel. Not blind, ecstatic, hope, but real confidence that as one life fades away another, possibly better, version of ourselves is possible. We are also reminded, in this remote and mystical corner, that the living, breathing world around may hold all the answers we need.