PERSONAL: Born in The Dalles, OR; married second wife, Katheryn Stavrakis; children: Kira and Elena. Education: Whitman College, B.A.; University of Kansas, M.A.; University of Massachusetts—Amherst, M.F.A.
ADDRESSES: Home—Portland, OR. Office—Department of English, Portland State University, Box 751, Portland, OR 97207. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer, editor, and educator. Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, OR, former instructor; Willamette University, Salem, OR, former Hallie Ford Professor of English and writer-in-residence; Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR, former visiting fiction writer and writer-in-residence; Portland State University, Portland, OR, senior writer-in-residence.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Bread Loaf fellowship; Best Novel of the Year awards, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, for Winterkill and The Sky Fisherman; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award, for Talking Leaves; Golden Spur Award, Western Writers of America, for Winterkill; Pulitzer Prize nominations for The Sky Fisherman and for Storm Riders; two National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships to study Native American literature; D.H.L., Whitman College.
Winterkill, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.
River Song (sequel to Winterkill), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.
The Sky Fisherman, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Storm Riders, Picador, 2000.
(With Alexander Blackburn and Jill Landem) The Interior Country: Stories of the Modern West, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1987.
(With Katheryn Stavrakis) Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories, Laurel (New York, NY), 1991.
(With Stavrakis) Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West, Laurel (New York, NY), 1993.
Oregon IV, photography by Rick Schafer, Graphic Arts Center (Portland, OR), 2002.
Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2005.
ADAPTATIONS: The Sky Fisherman was released on audio cassette.
SIDELIGHTS: A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, novelist Craig Lesley has spent much of his life exploring the outdoors, including several years working with the Deschutes River Guide Service in Oregon. His well-received debut novel, Winterkill, reflects the Native American experience. A Publishers Weekly contributor called Winterkill, parts of which were originally published as short stories, "a fine, old-fashioned yarn." "At its best, this first novel resembles Hemingway's Fathers and Sons," wrote Charles Michaud in the Library Journal.
The protagonist of Winterkill is drifter Danny Kachiah, a mostly Nez Perce Native American who lives in Oregon on his earnings as a rodeo cowboy. Danny's dead father, Red Shirt, had been a mystical leader on the reservation and had taught Danny the lore of the woods, where Red Shirt had once been observed transforming himself into an elk. Danny's estranged wife, Loxie, dies in a car crash, and he travels to Nebraska to retrieve his cynical son Jack, which he manages to do after a vicious fight with Jack's stepfather, a farmer named Hanson. The two return to Oregon, where Danny shows Jack the ways of his own father and teaches him how to deal with racism. He takes Jack on his first elk hunt, on which the title of the book is based. "The subtle blossoming of this father-son relationship, and the maturing of Danny's own character, make it easy to ignore some of the novel's more pat elements," wrote Richard Nalley in the New York Times Book Review. Gary Marmorstein, writing in the Los Angeles Times, maintained that "by resisting the natural impulse to make Danny Kachiah's plight symbolize the plight of Native Americans, Lesley has turned Danny into an Everyman who could stand in for any one of us."
In River Song, a sequel to Winterkill, Danny is distressed because Jack is intent on performing in rodeos, and so tries to instill in him the traditions of the Nez Perce. Like others of their tribe, Danny and Jack pick fruit, and are sometimes detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service as they sweep for illegal Mexican workers. Danny joins in the fight of the Native Americans along the Columbia River as they are harassed and attacked by sportsmen, law enforcement, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all of whom want to prevent them from fishing commercially. During the course of the narrative, Lesley also provides a detailed history of the Nez Perce tribe and Chief Joseph's resistance upon being ordered to move the tribe to a reservation in 1877. New York Times Book Review contributor Herbert Mitgang asserted: "It is Mr. Lesley's considerable achievement as a storyteller that, while conveying so much information to readers unfamiliar with the territory, a small family of characters emerges." Mitgang added: "Some of the information is so interesting that, even in a work of fiction, a reader pauses now and then to think about what he is learning."
Danny grieves for his dead wife, and although his former sister-in-law, Pudge, wants to marry him, he still thinks of Loxie. Mitgang called Pudge "the strongest personality in the book, a hard-working, accommodating individualist who holds the extended family unit together." Danny sees the ghost of Loxie and has a vision of a massacre that occurred in the past. He goes to a medicine woman for healing as he becomes overwhelmed by the Spirits, who act as characters in the story.
Robert Rafferty, writing in the Washington Post Book World, commented favorably on Lesley's characterization in River Song, explaining that "while the plot is a simple, raw-boned tale of a floundering man trying to discover himself in time to save his son, what makes the book worth reading is Lesley's characters, who are drawn with both bold and subtle strokes to be decidedly individualistic, and the seamless weaving of the culture of the Nez Perce and neighboring tribes into the tale." Atlantic contributor Phoebe-Lou Adams noted that, with one exception, the characters do not talk about injustice and their distrust of white authority. Adams added that "Mr. Lesley, however, says a great deal on that subject, not through polemic but by his vivid creation of actions and circumstances in the present and, through Danny's visions, of brutality and betrayal in the past." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Judith Freeman declared that "River Song takes on a palpable excitement in the passages dealing with the fishing rights dispute while offering a more lyrical and dreamlike beauty when Danny Kachiah makes the journey to the Hell's Canyon of the Snake River where the meaning of the massacre-vision is finally revealed. The novel is both an adventure tale and a more subtle story of personal quest and discovery."
J.C. Davies reviewed both Winterkill and River Song in Studies in American Fiction. Davies wrote that the author's "novels are not pleas for understanding, they are models of it, constructed within the tradition of western realism, and expanding that tradition. They use a chronologically ordered western narrative to depict a Native present informed and modified by Native uses of the past as in some sense contemporary. Lesley shows how inherited pain can be assuaged without nostalgia and personal guilt diffused in socially constructed ways."
Lesley's third novel, The Sky Fisherman, is a departure from his previous two works. Los Angeles Book Review contributor Charles Solomon called the work an "unsentimental yet compassionate coming-of-age story." Abigail Davis both interviewed Lesley and reviewed the new novel in the Bloomsbury Review. Davis explained that Lesley "intends this new novel to be, among other things, 'a celebration of small towns and working people,'" noting that he wants "'to show the positive side, not just a six-pack and despair.'" The main characters are young Culver Martin and his uncle Jake, the latter based on Lesley's own uncle, who was a legendary river guide. "It seems to me," wrote Davis, "that Lesley does not fully comprehend what an unforgettable, charismatic character he created in Jake." David went on to note: "He is Lesley's most compel-ling narrator to date." Davis added that Lesley "covers an astonishing number of issues and relationships in this novel, and it is a tribute to his abilities as a storyteller and plot technician that the reader is never overwhelmed."
In The Sky Fisherman, Culver's father has drowned and his mother, Flora, remarries Riley Walker, whom she follows from town to town as he is transferred due to his work for the railroad. Flora tires of her life and heads to Gateway, Oregon, and her brother Jake, who accompanies her back to Riley's home to gather up her possessions and her son. Jake owns a bait-and-tackle shop frequented by locals, including a Native American sheriff, a radio personality, a baker, and a crop duster. There are tensions based on cultural and racial differences, but from necessity, the diverse groups pool their resources and work together in fighting natural and manmade disasters. "Lesley has a real feel for the way the intimacy and the pettiness of small-town life push and pull both young and old," wrote Booklist contributor Bill Ott. Writing in the Library Journal, James B. Hemesath called The Sky Fisherman a "first-rate tale of half-hidden family betrayals."
In Storm Riders, Clark Woods, a professor in Oregon, assumes the task of raising Wade, a Tlingit boy and the cousin of Clarke's wife, Payette. The couple's marriage is failing, and the difficulties in raising Wade lead to its breakup. Wade was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and, as he grows, he develops psychotic tendencies. At the age of nine, he is suspected of drowning a young girl. Clark resists turning him over to the state's mental institution and supports him when Wade denies responsibility, because Clark does not believe the child knows right from wrong. "The two do, however, develop a form of love as profound as it is forlorn in this intense story about loyalty and letting go," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. Writing in the Library Journal, Rebecca Sturm Kelm commented that Lesley "creates chapters that often read like well-crafted short stories, complete in themselves."
Lesley has coedited several collections, including The Interior Country: Stories of the Modern West, which contains stories by Edward Abbey, Frank Waters, Jean Stafford, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Raymond Carver, and others. Mark Shelton of North American Review wrote that the volume "tries to redefine a literary region," adding: "The Interior Country is downright scholarly in this regard."
In 1999 Lesley coedited Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories, a collection of writings by thirty authors, twenty of them women. The collection was deemed "an extraordinary anthology" by Ann C. Sparanese in Kliatt. Charles Solomon commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the contributors to the collection "write about lives caught between civilizations." Many of the book's contributors are well known, including Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, Tom King, Gerald Vizenor, and James Welch. Lesser-known writers include Ed Edmo, Anita Endrezze, Rayna Green, Linda Hogan, Beth Brant, Elizabeth Woody, Diane Glancy, and Carter Revard.
In reviewing 1993's Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West, Clay Reynolds wrote in Western American Literature that "Craig Lesley is a more than competent editor, and this is a more than competently assembled collection." Reynolds added: "There isn't a bad story in the lot." Notable authors include Richard Ford, James Welch, Rick Bass, Ron Carlson, Amy Tan, Rick DeMarinis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry Lopez, Barbara Kingsolver, Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, and Rudolfo A. Anaya.
Traditional Western themes featured within the stories of Dreamers and Desperadoes include images of cattlemen bringing food to livestock during blizzard conditions and a school teacher who retreats to Montana to escape suburbia, only to find her life taken up with backbreaking manual labor. "These traditional themes are a minority, however, among the numerous modern settings and postmodern characters," wrote Robert Sekula in Bloomsbury Review. Sekula also wrote that the predominant theme of the collection "is a sensibility that predates the postmodern period. Most of these stories are preoccupied with the modern challenge to the age-old essentialist tradition." Kliatt contributor Virginia W. Marr commented that Dreamers and Desperadoes contains "treasures of every imaginable sort."
For his Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, Lesley focuses on his own family life. The author remembers how his mother struggled for a new life after his father left the family when Lesley was just a young boy. The author also tells of his later life caring for a Native American boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and his eventual tracking down of his charismatic father, who had worked for ranchers and as a noted hunting guide. "Never mawkish or sentimental, Lesley's work makes something beautiful from the wreckage of a tumble-down family," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Frank Sennett, writing in Booklist, commented: "These people are as raw and real as a rare elk heart bleeding on the plate."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Lesley, Craig Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2005.
American Libraries, December, 2003, Bill Ott, "Quick Bibs: Finding First Novels," includes review of Winterkill, p. 92.
Atlantic, September, 1989, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of River Song, p. 111.
Bloomsbury Review, September, 1993, Robert Sekula, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West, p. 11; May, 1996, Abigail Davis, "The Spirit of Community in the Fiction of Craig Lesley," review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 17.
Booklist, April 15, 1984, review of Winterkill, p. 1152; May 1, 1989, review of River Song, p. 1509; November 15, 1991, review of Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories, p. 603; June 1, 1993, Joe Collins, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, p. 1782; January 15, 1994, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, p. 867; September 15, 1995, Bill Ott, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 141; August, 1997, Karen Harris, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 1920; August, 2005, Frank Sennett, review of Burning Fence, p. 1982.
Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 1991, review of Talking Leaves, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1984, review of Winterkill, p. 269; April 1, 1989, review of River Song, p. 490; July 1, 1995, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 885.
Kliatt, September, 1990, review of River Song, p. 12; January, 1992, Ann C. Sparanese, review of Talking Leaves, p. 22; November, 1993, Virginia W. Marr, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, p. 20.
Library Journal, May 1, 1984, Charles Michaud, review of Winterkill, p. 915; May 15, 1989, Charles Michaud, review of River Song, p. 90; October 15, 1991, Debbie Bogenschutz, review of Talking Leaves, p. 126; June 1, 1995, James B. Hemesath, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 164; December, 1999, Rebecca Sturm Kelm, review of Storm Riders, p. 187.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 14, 1984, Gary Marmorstein, "The Pains of an Indian Summer," p. 13; September 10, 1989, Judith Freeman, "Fishing for His Son," p. 8; June 3, 1990, review of River Song, p. 14; October 6, 1991, Charles Solomon, review of Talking Leaves, p. 14; December 15, 1991, review of Talking Leaves, p. 6; November 17, 1996, Charles Solomon, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 14.
New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1984, Richard Nalley, review of Winterkill, p. 20; July 1, 1989, Herbert Mitgang, "Books of The Times; 'Indians as America's Native Aliens,'" p. 12; July 30, 1989, review of River Song, p. 16; May 20, 1990, review of River Song, p. 52.
North American Review, June, 1990, Mark Shelton, "Boundaries and Unboundaries," review of The Interior Country: Stories of the Modern West, pp. 58-60.
Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1984, review of Winterkill, p. 67; April 14, 1989, review of River Song, p. 50; September 13, 1991, review of Talking Leaves, p. 72; February 22, 1993, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, p. 89; May 29, 1995, review of The Sky Fisherman, p. 65; November 8, 1999, review of Storm Riders, p. 46; July 11, 2005, review of Burning Fence, p. 81.
Sports Afield, May, 1986, review of Winterkill, p. 114.
Studies in American Fiction, autumn, 1994, J.C. Davies, "Euro-American Realism versus Native Authenticity: Two Novels by Craig Lesley," p. 233.
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1991, review of Talking Leaves, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, July 23, 1989, Robert Rafferty, "Spirits and Visions," p. 5; July 15, 1990, review of River Song, p. 12.
Western American Literature, May, 1995, Clay Reynolds, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, pp. 114-115.
World Literature Today, spring, 1987, review of Winterkill, p. 61; autumn, 1993, Alan R. Velie, review of Talking Leaves, pp. 869-870; spring, 1995, review of Dreamers and Desperadoes, p. 114.
Lesley Craig Home Page, http://www.craiglesley.com (August 28, 2006).
Pacifica University Web site, http://www.pacificu.edu/ (August 28, 2006), brief profile of author.
Portland State University Center for Excellence in Writing Web site, http://www.english.pdx.edu/cew/ (August 28, 2006), faculty profile of author.
Whitman College Web site, http://www.whitman.edu/ (December 13, 2002), "For the Love of Teaching: Noted Novelist Returns to Whitman."
Word Stock Festival Web site, http://www.wordstockfestival.com/ (August 28, 2006), information on author's works.