About the Book
Spanning the latter half of the nineteenth century, this coming-of-age novel unfolds in the form of a historian’s notebook. Protagonist and narrator Millie Langlie (daughter of a S’Klallam maiden and a Norwegian mariner) is an adventurous girl with a curious mind. Guided by the gift of a pair of silver fish earrings, she unearths an anomalous Indian-on-Indian massacre and confronts her mother’s secret love affair. Journeying from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Townsend and back again, Millie discovers how knowledge of the past can teach us to love, forgive, and forge a new path.
For Readers and Book Clubs:
“Dungeness is a remarkable work. Karen Polinsky weaves a rich tapestry of fact and fiction, sprinkled with Northwest native art, language, and historical images, about the churning cultural changes of the Olympic Peninsula in the 1870s, seen through a young native girl’s experiences. But even more than this, Polinsky imbues her narrative with a deep and captivating sense of mystery. A wonderful work; deserves to be reprinted and spread broadly.” — Joe Upton, Alaska Blues: A Story of Freedom, Risk and Living Your Dream
At high tide the five-mile spit of sand is like a bent elbow. At the tip of the crooked finger, the New Dungeness Light Station overlooks the sandbar with a shifting, uneasy regard.
A girl, restless, props her chin up on the rail of their fragrant plank house. A lock lashes at her squinched forehead. She loops it around her boney ear, a convenient oarlock. Pendant earrings shaped like fish banter in the sunlight.
She shrugs once, and then reaches for the cradleboard leaning on the sill. Beside it, a wide-weave pot-bellied oyster basket. In her arms, an infant sausaged inside a rolled cedar mat. She secures the bundle to the cedar plank. A leather strap across her forehead supports the basket, which rocks against her hip. Thus encumbered, Annie races down the oozing path in between the mucus grass to the water’s edge.
Her flat right palm shields her eyes.
It’s a clean morning full of sun, one made for sport.
On the horizon his bright green troller with its matchstick mast, bobbing. The old man, Charles Langlie, Norwegian sailor turned farmer-fisherman, anchored out a short distance from the Dungeness sandbar. He can’t expect to bring in much, not without help. According to Carl, Jake-the-Makah ought to be here on the other end of a purse seine net. However, when Jake shows up tomorrow, Carl knows better than to question him or display his irritation. Carl may be the boss, but Jake is prideful and won’t put up with much.
With or without his hired man, the next step is to deliver one or two basins of the smaller fish to the cannery at S’Klallam Bay. Annie figures, even with a modest take, he won’t be back for hours.
How did Eliza-the-third, E’ow-itsa in Coast Salish, aka Seya, persuade the fourteen-year-old S’Klallam princess to wed the old Norwegian mariner?
What makes her stay?
At first, she reasoned, or at least hoped, a liaison with a white husband almost four times her age could only increase her status. Instead, she has become his near slave. Each day Annie fetches potable water from the creek, prepares fish stew, boils water to scrub his cuffs and collars, and gathers kindling from the beach. All this, before the baby!
The fisherman, with a halo of white hair and a glowering aspect, can claim one or two finer points, as well as some unanticipated talents. With no cash to pay the canoe-preacher, he managed to throw up a decent house. In the evening, Carl sits by the fire uncoiling his sleeves. On the little iron cook stove he crisps glowing ginger cookies with a spicy aftertaste. Despite his rough manners, he’s never rough with her.
The story of how he netted his unsought treasure, he embellishes. In nearby Sequim–not exactly a town but instead a few signposts buried in the mud–cannery workers, lumbermen, farmers, and oystermen meet at a tavern, The Corners. Here, Carl toasts the passage of time with Hjalmar Henning, an original pioneer who makes his living hauling logs with an ox team.
At the bar, Henning coughs up the coins, which gives him the right to bellyache: about farmers who pay in kind instead of cash; claim jumpers quicker than his scatter shot; but worst of all, where are all the women? Can’t find a girl—white, brown, red, or Chinese—to brand a steak, wring his socks, or measure out his whisky.
To prick him on, Carl relates a marvelous confabulation, about how a damned alcoholic snagged a princess. Carl should know by now that the term “princess,” and other nomenclature of European aristocracy, increasingly offend the local Natives. These satiric honorifics mock historic S’Klallam hierarchies, a source of great pride. He’s aware, but he can’t help it: to Carl, Annie is, and always will be, his princess.
Henning bites his lip and squirms. No fairy tale princess, but an actual blood-and-flesh woman, that’s what he wants.
Meanwhile, on the lost beach, beside the big log with its medusa-like roots, Annie drops her load of bearded oysters and kneels. With her fingertips she combs the infant’s wisps. The baby gurgles. Annie wiggles her index finger and recites the tale of Slap’u, wild woman of the woods. Listen: You can hear her whistling through the dank trees. Another warning sign (just in case you weren’t paying attention!) she smells bad. Slap’u, with the tangled seaweed hair, steals babies from the beach, and tosses them into the basket on her back. Bad children kidnapped by Slap’u never return.