Decades before Seattle became known for Microsoft and Starbucks, the city was a muscular place where working men labored hard.
Peter Donahue's Clara and Merritt (Wordcraft, 285 pages, $14) captures that brawnier city from the 1930s and 1940s when the Teamsters and more radical International Longshoremen Association battled for labor supremacy. The novel unspools the hot war between the two powerhouse unions via a more tender and conventional device—a boy-meets-girl story.
But in this creative-writing and journalism professor's hands, the story does not slip into clichés. Like the best historical fiction, Donahue's well-paced novel instead provides a strong sense of place and well-drawn characters to convey its time. Each character tries in his or her own way to make sense of an increasingly confusing world by putting faith in a higher force—the power of art, faith and, of course, the unions that at one time seemed omniscient and omnipotent enough to give working men a sense of solidarity.
Clara grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a longshoreman and a mother who turns to Christian Science. World War II and a Navy assignment brings Merritt from his Vermont home to Seattle and its "unrelenting drear." Both start out as lonely innocents who accumulate adult problems before reuniting after the war. For Clara, it's an abusive boyfriend she picks up while pursuing her interest in art; for Merritt, it's a secret that exposes him to blackmail and prompts him to put in for a transfer to sea.
The union strife surfaces in the second half of the novel when Merritt returns to Seattle after the war and lands a job with the Teamsters—creating tension with Clara's father and brother, who's followed their dad into the ILA.
Clara and Merritt suffers from taking on a bit too much—a thread about Seattle's midcentury art world feels like overkill—and an ending that's a little too neat. (There's also one historical flub sure to be noted by racists everywhere—a reference to 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond as Strom "Thurman").
But those quibbles aside, this is a good summer read that will draw you in with its portraits and leave you knowing more about a fascinating stretch of Northwest history.
Peter Donahue will read at Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 SW Capitol Highway, 246-0053. 7:30 pm Thursday, June 10. He also reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, June 11. Both events are free.