A window into Portland’s wild past

land-sharksChristine Webb

Choosing a favorite historical novel written by an Oregon based author was not a difficult  task at all.   Hands down, my favorite novel in this category is “Land Sharks,” written by S.L. Stoner.  With a writing style that keeps the story and action moving very quickly, Ms. Stoner has crafted a historical mystery that explores the difficulties and dangers faced by the very first union supporters in Portland, Oregon, during early 1900’s.  While telling the story of these workers who risked their lives to ensure safer working conditions for everyone during this initial introduction of unions, another story evolves, one equally, if not even more devastating–the story of those involved in the business of shanghaiing.

Right downtown, at 3rd and Couch there was actually a wharf where row boats filled with drugged, beaten or tortured, unconscious men very often left to meet outgoing ships, more than likely bound for China.  Many of these men were never seen again. This novel brought to life, for me, this unsavory aspect of Portland’s history.  Many Portland citizens were involved in the trafficking of men and boys–some actively, others simply turned an uncaring eye in the opposite direction. Gratefully, there were a handful of people who risked their lives, as well, to do whatever they could to stop this abhorrent activity. 

While the story and lessons to be learned from this time in Portland history are serious, one very fun aspect of this novel for me was the opportunity to “see” Portland during this earlier period of time–a time of horse drawn carriages, dirt roads, and happily, timeless landmarks that still exist today. The buildings standing downtown at this moment might be new and not the same buildings that were described in this novel, but many of the blocks and areas of town mentioned in “Land Sharks” still exist today, including the underground tunnels used to hold men captive, and it was a challenge to visualize exactly where the characters were in relation to  northwest Portland, Milwaukie, the river front, Burnside, the southwest hills and various other sites recognizable to anyone living in Portland for any length of time.  This book is one in a series written by S.L. Stoner and I appreciate very much the time she has devoted to researching this period of Portland’s history and these horrendous accounts of mistreatment.

This historical novel was enlightening, at times, entertaining, but most importantly, it offered a glimpse into a past which none of these men, nor their families, deserved to experience.  This very well written historical novel is a reminder to readers of all ages that there are aspects of our history we must not allow to be repeated.

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