Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Nard Jones    (1904-1972)
By Walt Curtis 1995

In 1930, a Whitman College graduate published a novel about Weston, Oregon. The book described growing up between 1919-1927 in a town named Creston. The names were changed, but Weston residents were shocked. Some said it was a fair portrayal, but others were certain their family histories were being mocked and besmirched. Using "New Realism", Oregon Detour, is the first "realistic" novel published in Oregon. It is often compared to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street.

Were there book burnings? Nard Jones made annual visits to his home town and was neither lynched nor shot (although copies kept disappearing from the library). Happily, Oregon Detour is back in print thanks to OSU Press.

George Venn, general editor of OSU's, Oregon Literature Series, researched the story. He gives a thorough and pleasant account of the controversy. Venn also includes a valuable biography of Nard Jones in the reprint. Oregon Detour is fun to read and gives evocative descriptions of small town life in the 1920s.

Jones would become a full-time journalist in Washington State and become associated with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Nard Jones published 12 novels.

Several became bestsellers, including Swift Flows the River. He wrote a history of Washington, Evergreen Land, and worked with Stewart Holbrook and Roderick Haig-Brown on The Pacific Northwest, a regional history. Copies of his Marcus Whitman book, The Great Command, are plentiful. For me, his first book, Oregon Detour, in the trilogy including The Petlands and Wheat Woman, was terribly engaging. Oregon Detour was a rare book - the first book by a young Oregon author - and caused a sensation.

It reminds me of small-town life a few decades ago. Hopes and cynicism's of young people are movingly displayed. The local high school prepares its future. There's a Reverend Horlis. Evocative harvest scenes. Dances and disasters. The teacher, Miss Larson will have a secret tryst with Swede. Young people, Charlie, Lester and Etta, will discuss the meaning of life. Good sweet Etta, our heroine, will be repulsed by Lester's Jazz Age cynicism and male macho forwardness. The reader will discover a truth - which many of us still entertain - that life and Oregon itself is just "a detour" on the way to oblivion. I'm joking! You might as well have some fun on the trip.



Oregon Detour (excerpt)

"Well, there must be, Lester."

She looked about her into the darkness. The sky was so black, so huge. "It would be so - so silly if there wasn't. Wouldn't it?"

"Isn't it silly? People lying and cheating and getting away with it. People being decent as they know how and living in hell on earth just the same. Peg going blindly on, not loving Swede - not loving anybody in particular. Not knowing what she wants. She'll go on and have Swede's kids and then some day she'll die..."

"Sure. Sad but true. You, too, Etta. It's a lot of fun to think it over, isn't it....You'll have Charlie's kids and then you'll die."

Etta shuddered. For a scant second she was without faith, without hope...without hope which makes life bearable at all. In that scant second she felt a living death. A spiritual pallidness. But it was only for a second.

"You make it so ugly, Lester. You think you're smart. You'll see some day. I've had lots of fun and so have you. You can't deny it."

"I'm not. Just the same you got to admit we're all detouring on the way to death. We're born, and from that second we start out for death. What we do in between time is detour. Some kids die at birth. They take the straight road- all paved. It's shorter. You - "

"Oh, stop talking like that. It's - it's - sort of nasty some way."

They walked along, and Lester felt infinitely better. These things he was telling Etta, without particular originality, were pleasing him. They hurt her, he knew. They sank deep into a soul that loved life fully. He knew, too, that tomorrow she would forget them; but for tonight they were making her utterly miserable.

"But this hasn't anything to do with marriage," she finally said.

"It has, in a way. You see, in the meantime you ought to live. You shouldn't miss anything. You and Swede and Peg and all the rest of them. I'm not trying to be high-hat. I don't think I'm better just because I went to college. Sometimes I wish to Christ I hadn't started."

He kicked into the roadway with his boot, sending up a fine cloud of white-mist. "There's so much you can do. Swede trying to keep Peg by beating me up - why don't he keep her because she wants to be kept?...Will you tell me something?"

"Why...yes."

"Did you and Charlie ever stand naked in the middle of a room and imbrace each other?"

Why, Lester! Of course we didn't!"

"I didn't think you had. I don't suppose Swede and Peg ever have."

"But what - why do you say that? What has that to do with it?"

"Oh, nothing, I guess. But if ever I get married I'm going to do it. I'm going to dance with my wife that way. Turn on the radio and pull down the shades and dance that way-"

He broke off wildly, laughing at Etta, laughing into the night. Somehow his brief for paganism, for freedom in the wind of life had disintegrated before this girl. He felt frustrated, silly.

Instinctively Etta drew away from him. "You're crazy, Lester. I never heard anyone talk like that!"

The statement seemed to please him. "Maybe not," he said. "Come on, let's go back."