The Derelict Light: A Novel
The Derelict Light, environmental journalist Mike Stark’s first novel, is a character study of Astoria, Oregon, a small, dreary town on the Columbia River just miles from the Pacific Ocean. The plot centers primarily around a fire set in December 1922 and its effects on Astoria’s people, town, and future.
The novel walks a fine line between nonfiction and fiction. Stark melds the historic account of real events, including the fire, the fishing and forestry industries, the influence of an early union (the Wobblies), Finnish immigrants, and the strong presence of the KKK, layered among the imagined with the hand of a seasoned writer. Some readers may find themselves doing a fair amount of research to determine what is fact and what is fiction.
The book seesaws in time, chapter by chapter, with each chapter conveniently bearing the year it takes place, helping to orient the reader. The Derelict Light begins with its ending. The prologue is dated December 8, 1922, the exact day of the fire, and with the first sentence, “the kid found the lumberjack hanging from Sanborn’s dock, . . .” the reader is immediately dropped, alongside the townspeople, into what becomes some of the recurring questions of the book: Who is the person hanging on the dock? Was he murdered? By whom? Why? These questions weave their way through the entirety of the novel, linked to the larger mystery of who started the fire and why.
Chapter 1 then jumps back in time to 1879, introducing us to Joseph Leino and his friend, Jorma Olli, immigrants from Finland, who had come to Astoria to try to make a living fishing the Columbia River. Jorma dies in a fishing accident, and after Joseph’s wife dies in Finland, his son Arni and daughter Lily come to Astoria to be with their father. Ari finds work in the cannery and the logging industry, but Lily struggles and falls in with the wrong crowd, getting involved with a drug lord, Jack Black, who gets her addicted to opium. Black eventually frames her and creates evidence that has her arrested and jailed for murder.
At its core, The Derelict Light is a mystery, and the extensive list of potential arsonists form the bulk of the plot of the novel. Some of the potential arsonists are the Reds, or the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); the very active Klu Klux Klan, which is trying to infiltrate the mayoral office and city council with Klan members by bribes and pressure; individuals, with Bart Layton, an unreformed thief whose crimes, reform school, jailings and escapes set him up as the prime suspect. Stark gives each of these individuals or groups ample reason to start the fire and keeps the reader wondering as well.
Introduced early in the novel, Bart Layton emerges as the most likely suspect in starting the fire because of his long history of thievery, reform school, and escape from jails, as well as his unrequited love for Asta. It may be argued that this premise, as well as Bart’s obsession with Asta, a girl he had gone to school with, is a contrived plot device, as the obsession arose only after a dream in which he saw the two of them together. However, the theory of unrequited love does put the blame more solidly on Bart. We, along with the fire marshal, H.H. Flemming, who is investigating the fire, learn that a young man had run into her apartment, said he’d just “lit the downtown on fire,” then ran off again. The new KKK leadership in Astoria is happy to let Bart Layton take the blame for the fire because the Reds (Wobblies) could then be blamed. KKK members force Brewster, the Wobblies recruiter, to sign an affidavit saying that Bart Layton is a Wobblies supporter that started the fire in the name of the Red cause.
While the mystery of who set the 1922 fire and why is the main focus of The Derelict Light, that is not all that is at play here. The natural environment plays an important role in the Pacific Northwest, ringing true in the novel. Even before the fire, heavy and persistent rain, a fact of life in the area, triggered a mudslide in 1905. Asta, who later becomes a dentist in Astoria, and is object of Bart’s obsession, loses her parents and house in this mudslide in the nearby town of Knappeton, where she grew up.
After the death of her parents, Asta’s aunt comes to care for her. Rather than take the girl to the site of the house’s ruin and her parents’ death, she takes Asta to Peacock Spit, a sandbar jutting into the Columbia River. Stark’s description of the spit as “a swirling mass of crashing white waves where the river spilled into the Pacific and the ocean pummeled the shore with walls of water that seemed to come from every direction” can be read as a metaphor of the lives the people of Astoria face, lives beset with tragedy.
Asta’s aunt proceeds with a melancholic monologue about the “many ships and bodies just scattered all around,” then giving way to reverence: “But they were all out there, weren’t they? Trying to get somewhere? . . . Uncertain about what awaited them on the other side but certain they had to try.” This statement by Asta’s aunt can sum up the motivations of many of the characters in the novel, who are trying to make a life for themselves in spite of the challenges. Statements such as this may make the reader stop for a second, wondering if they are intended as a greater comment on life itself beyond the characters in the novel.
No mystery is complete without an unsuspected twist, and Stark does not disappoint. By novel’s end, the many plot and character threads are richly and satisfactorily resolved. Although they will not be revealed in this review, suffice it to say that at the conclusion of the novel, readers will know who set the fire and why and who the person hanging on the dock in the book’s prologue is. Readers will also come to understand that the town of Astoria is more than a setting in The Derelict Light. It is one of the main characters of the book itself, beckoning, suffering, and, ultimately reinventing itself.