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“A glorious book—an assured novel that’s gorgeously told.” —The New York Times Book Review
“An incredibly moving epic about an unforgettable family.”CBS Sunday Morning
“[An] absorbing novel…I felt both grateful to have known these people and bereft at the prospect of leaving them behind.” —The Washington Post

A stunning novel about love, work, and marriage that asks how far one family and one community will go to protect their future.

Colleen and Rich Gundersen are raising their young son, Chub, on the rugged California coast. It’s 1977, and life in this Pacific Northwest logging town isn’t what it used to be. For generations, the community has lived and breathed timber; now that way of life is threatened.

Colleen is an amateur midwife. Rich is a tree-topper. It’s a dangerous job that requires him to scale trees hundreds of feet tall—a job that both his father and grandfather died doing. Colleen and Rich want a better life for their son—and they take steps to assure their future. Rich secretly spends their savings on a swath of ancient redwoods. But when Colleen, grieving the loss of a recent pregnancy and desperate to have a second child, challenges the logging company’s use of the herbicides she believes are responsible for the many miscarriages in the community, Colleen and Rich find themselves on opposite sides of a budding conflict. As tensions in the town rise, they threaten the very thing the Gundersens are trying to protect: their family.

Told in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, Damnation Spring is an intimate, compassionate portrait of a family whose bonds are tested and a community clinging to a vanishing way of life. An extraordinary story of the transcendent, enduring power of love—between husband and wife, mother and child, and longtime neighbors. An essential novel for our times.

This reading group guide for Damnation Spring includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has chopped a livelihood out of the redwood forest along California’s rugged coast. Now Rich and his wife, Colleen, are raising their young son near Damnation Grove, a swath of ancient redwoods on which Rich’s employer, Sanderson Timber Co., plans to make a killing. In 1977, with most of the forest cleared or protected, a grove like Damnation—and beyond it 24-7 Ridge—is a logger’s dream.

But logging is dangerous work, and Rich wants better for his son, Chub. So, when the opportunity arises to buy 24-7 Ridge—costing them all the savings they’ve squirreled away for their growing family—he grabs it, unbeknownst to Colleen. Because the reality is their family isn’t growing; Colleen has lost several pregnancies. And she isn’t alone. As a midwife, Colleen has seen the suffering of other women with her own eyes.

For decades, the herbicides the logging company uses were considered harmless. But what if these miscarriages aren’t isolated strokes of bad luck? As mudslides take out clear-cut hillsides and salmon vanish from creeks, Colleen’s search for answers threatens to unravel not just Rich’s plans for the 24-7, but their marriage too, dividing a town that lives and dies on timber along the way.

In prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, this intimate, compassionate portrait of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life amid the perils of environmental degradation is an essential novel for our time.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Lark says of Rich, “Not a lot of guys are born to do something.” What is Lark referring to? In your opinion, what role does a sense of “destiny” play in Rich’s decision to take a risk on 24-7 Ridge?

2. Consider the role Daniel played in Colleen’s young adulthood. Why does she feel drawn to him when he first returns to Klamath? To Colleen, what does Daniel represent in her life?

3. In the beginning of the novel, Colleen is reeling after her latest miscarriage and feels resentful of her sister, Enid, who now has six children—including her youngest, the miraculously docile Alsea. How does Colleen’s notion of Enid as the luckier of the two become more complicated as the novel progresses? By the end of the novel, how has the sisters’ relationship to one another changed?

4. On page 50, Daniel’s words replay in Colleen’s head: “People think it’s just about trees, or it’s just about fish. By the time they realize it’s about them, it’s too late.” How does the interconnectedness of people and the environment play out in the novel? Do you think Daniel’s prediction—that the risks of environmental degradation will be evident only once it’s too late—comes true for the community of Klamath? Why or why not?

5. Throughout the novel, water—flood waters, mudslides, contaminated creeks—poses as much a danger to all Klamath residents as the occupational hazards of forestry do to the loggers. How do you understand the role of water in this story?

6. Rich observes about Merle’s husky, “A dog wasn’t a man. It didn’t choose which sonofabitch owned him.” Consider the subsequent revelations about Eugene’s actions in light of Rich’s observation. In your opinion, is Eugene’s financial dependence on Sanderson a justification for his behavior, or not?

7. Consider Colleen’s reluctance to tell Rich about the tap water collection jars, and Rich’s insistence on keeping the news about his purchase of 24-7 Ridge a secret from Colleen. Why do you think these characters repeatedly hesitate to confide in one another? In your opinion, what are some events and developments that finally lead to more openness between them, and why?

8. On page 295, Pete says to Rich “[A] woman’ll lift a car if her kid’s under it.” Mothers—and in particular Helen and Colleen—are among the most vocal and active in the effort to uncover the truth about the health implications of Sanderson’s herbicide sprays. Why is this? What role does motherly love and heartbreak play in driving the investigation forward? How might the novel have been different if the experiences of the women in the community were less central?

9. During his speech at the hearing, Rich says “You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath.” What does Rich mean by this? What do the loggers, the Yurok fishermen, and the environmentalists have in common? How do their perspectives differ?

10. At the dentist’s office in Coos Bay, Rich is finally relieved of the toothache he’s had since the beginning of the novel. In addition, he at last finds closure to his relationship to Astrid. How do you understand his relief in this chapter? What—in addition to a rotting tooth—do you think has been plaguing him all this time?

11. By the final chapter, how would you characterize Colleen’s relationship to 24-7 Ridge? How has it changed over the course of the novel? What do you imagine Colleen will do with the land now?

Enhance Your Book Club

Supplemental reading:

1. A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights by Carol Van Strum

2. The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street over California’s Ancient Redwoods by David Harris

3. From the Redwood Forest: Ancient Trees and the Bottom Line: A Headwaters Journey by Joan Dunning

Supplemental viewing:

1. “The People vs. Agent Orange,” available on PBS’s Independent Lens beginning June 28, 2021

2. “American West(s): How the Yurok Tribe is Reclaiming the Klamath River,” available on the High Country News YouTube channel

3. “Tending the Wild: Keeping the River,” available on the KCET YouTube channel

For a full list of additional resources, please visit ashdavidson.net/true-stories
Photograph by Carol B. Hagen

Ash Davidson was born in Arcata, California, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been supported by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and MacDowell. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.