This book was well on the way to being a 5-star read for me, and then the ending happened. If you’ve not read Damnation Spring or don’t want to see a spoiler, stop reading, because I have something to say.
What it’s about
From the Goodreads description:
Colleen and Rich Gundersen are raising their young son, Chub, on the rugged California coast. It’s 1977, and life in this Pacific Northwest logging town isn’t what it used to be. For generations, the community has lived and breathed timber; now that way of life is threatened.
Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper. It’s a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall—a job that both his father and grandfather died doing. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son—and they take steps to assure their future. Rich secretly spends their savings on a swath of ancient Redwoods. Colleen, desperate to have a second baby, challenges the logging company’s use of herbicides that she believes are responsible for the many miscarriages in the community—including her own. Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a budding conflict that threatens the very thing they are trying to protect: their family.
Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is an intimate, compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. An extraordinary story of the transcendent, enduring power of love—between husband and wife, mother and child, and longtime neighbors. An essential novel for our times.
I loved so much about this book. Davidson’s prose is remarkably good, and I so enjoyed the setting of 1970s deep in California redwood country. The multiple POVs are handled beautifully (even if we don’t really gain much from the chapters from perspective of the five-year-old), and I really felt like I was in the minds of very distinct characters. Damnation Spring is atmospheric and richly detailed—the author definitely knows some things about logging—but the story flowed along nicely for me.
While the characters themselves are fictional, the book is based on real historical events, as people started to become more environmentally aware and to reckon with the effects of chemical exposure on humans, animals, and the ecosystem. The close-knit logging community of Damnation Spring clashes with environmentalists wanting to save the redwoods and stop pollution in the area.
Our main characters are Rich, a middle-aged, 4th generation logger trying to build a life and future for his family; his considerably younger wife, Colleen, who seems to be (a bit disturbingly) focused on having more children; and their young son, Chub. Rich’s chapters were full of logging talk and his internal insecurities and worries. Colleen has suffered through a LOT of pregnancy losses and is determined to have more children. She serves as a midwife to the women of the area and is noticing a lot of other women are suffering losses, while children are born with birth defects and other people and animals are getting sick. When a man from her past, now a researcher, comes to study the area and suggests that the water is contaminated by chemicals that the logging company sprays, Rich and Colleen (and many others in the community) find themselves at odds.
Rich and Colleen are complex and messy characters who make bad decisions, which is to say, they are believable and very human. There are a lot of really crappy people in the supporting cast of characters, and a few really awesome ones (I loved Lark). Damnation Spring is gritty, sad, violent, and graphic, and I can definitely see how all of the logging jargon could be a turn off for some readers. It’s slow moving and very detailed, but I loved that.
Right up until very near the end, that is, when it became evident that a main character was about to be needlessly killed off, just as things were seeming to come together and work out for the Gundersons. I am not the kind of reader that needs a happy ending or everything tied up with a pretty bow, but to me, this death served absolutely no purpose and felt a bit like a cop out. While things didn’t end happily, they did end a little hopefully, but honestly… I’m a little mad.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for this honest review.