You learn a lot about a place when you set out to write it into a story. The Makah Indian town of Neah Bay touts itself rightly as the farthest northwest town in the continental United States. I have made dozens of pilgrimages to this remarkable community over the last ten years or so. I’ve been researching a novel, of course, but one can’t help but be charmed by the culture of a place as wild and remote, and yet as near to Seattle as Neah Bay is.
I am writing a medical thriller novel, which I have just tentatively entitled, “The Neah Virus.” Like my other medical thrillers, it will feature Seattle sleuth and biotechnology wizard, Dr. Peyton McKean. But it will also feature the rich and wonderful culture of the Makah Indian Nation.
Consider this. Neah Bay is about five hours from Seattle by ferry, highway, and backroad. It is a tiny town and a humble place compared to Seattle’s globally recognized glittering eminence. The juxtaposition of the Makahs’ ancient ways and tribal connectedness in contrast to the vast wealth, power, and spiritual loneliness of Seattleites is a stark dichotomy that I have found both amazing and compelling.
As I draft the second revision of my manuscript for The Neah Virus, I go over my large collection of books bought at the Makah Museum and other places, my photos by the hundreds, my notes by the score, and my memories of visits to the town.
Though small and lacking in amenities like shopping malls and movie theaters, Neah Bay has a richness of spirit among its people like few other places in this modern globalized world. People are generally friendly, although if you come to town with an agenda set against their treaty-granted right to pursue the gray whale in dugout canoes, you might get some hostile reactions or maybe worse.
I’m neutral on whale hunting, but give some credence to the notion that a people who have eaten whale since the beginning of time, might still need whale in their diet to live a healthy life. Anti-whaling protesters have descended on Neah Bay a number of times. They have their legitimate concern about bloody oceanic scenes of harpooned whales, and it seems ne’er the twain shall meet.
From my perspective as an author of fiction, the conflict between Seattle’s glittering, modern, whale-loving culture and the Makahs’ traditional, ancient whale-meat-loving culture is the stuff of great stories. The Neah Virus, which involves itself with every one of the issues and ideas I’ve mentioned, adds something new to the mix. A virus, arising seemingly out of nowhere. In contrast to the smallpox epidemics of the 1850s, this virus kills outsiders but leaves Makahs untouched.
Hmmm. How could that be? Better ask Peyton McKean to figure it out quickly, before it spreads. Or better yet, ask the old Makah shaman, Gordon Steel. He seems to know more than he is saying. Even better than that, ask Raven, the ancient trickster spirit.