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Monday, July 2, 2012

Tonight at (Beaverton's) Powell's: Wicked Portland

Posted by Joe Streckert on Mon, Jul 2, 2012 at 1:59 PM

wicked.jpeg

Portland has obviously not always been a city filled with bicycles and very nice coffee. It used to be a fairly colorful frontier town with a focus on shipping, mining, and logging. There haven't been too many good books about Portland history, though. Previously, if you wanted to learn about rowdy loggers, shanghaied sailors, and Portland’s once-busy saloons that overflowed with hookers and booze you had two options: One was E. Kimbark McColl’s series about the founding of Portland. McColl’s books are fantastic, scholarly, and thorough, but they are mind-zottingly dry and of phone book-ian length. Your other option was delving into the works of Stewart Holbrook, a popular journalist from the early twentieth century. Holbrook (whose best stuff is collected in a volume called Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistlepunks) is an absolutely fantastic writer and yarn-spinner. However, Holbrook was always far more interested in a good story than what was actually true. His essays read more like tall tales than anything approximating history or journalism.

OSU instructor Finn J.D. John (full disclosure: I’ve met John a few times, and he and I are collaborating on a history pub crawl with Doug Kenck-Crispin of Kick-Ass Oregon History next month) has split the difference between McColl and Holbrook. Wicked Portland is not an impenetrable tome (like McColl) and it's not of questionable truthfulness (like Holbrook). Instead, it's a pretty good survey of all of the vice, corruption, shanghaiing, hooker-ing, opium smuggling, and other various amusingly immoral things about Portland from the 1880s and '90s.

I didn’t like the book unreservedly. While all of the content is great, John sometimes affects too much of a folksy tone with his writing. The interspersing of phrases like “now then” and “as you might imagine” throughout then text was a bit grating. I also did not care for the inclusion of QR Codes throughout the book. I suppose that having supplemental web information in a book could be neat, but I didn't want to fuss with my phone while reading. I also felt that the book sort of glibly focused on the "fun" bad things like hookers and corruption while glossing over Portland's fairly terrible history with regards to race. But, those are minor quibbles. If you're any kind of local history nerd, check it out at the Cedar Hills Powell's tonight at 7 pm.

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