The Big Both Ways – John Straley

March 21, 2017

John Straley ties the characters of this cleverly written novel into the setting of his previous work, Cold Storage, Alaska, in The Big Both Ways, published by Soho Press, copyright 2008.


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The Big Both Ways begins with a logger by the name of Slip Wilson who has just quit his job after witnessing a fellow logger killed in an accident on the job.  On the road out of Seattle he encounters a woman by the name of Ellie Hobbes whose car is stuck in a ditch.  So after helping her get it out she offers him a ride and although he had no destination in mind he accepts the offer and finds there is a young girl, Ellie’s niece Annabelle, who is travelling with her.  He also learns that Ellie is a communist, or what was referred to in those times as a ‘red’, or anarcho-syndicalist, from the docks of Seattle.  Her husband had left her for another young woman and after a house fire killed Ellie’s sister and brother in-law, Annabelle ended up in Ellie’s care.


While travelling up the coast Ellie decides to get rid of the car because, as it is discovered later, there is a dead body in the trunk.  Together they send the car into the depths of Puget Sound and Slip is truly mystified by this behavior and increasingly suspicious of what this woman is up to.  They begin to walk up the railroad tracks along the Sound and come across a hobo camp where they are welcomed to stay for the night and enjoy many stories and lively music.  The next day however brings a load of trouble as the camp is raided by Flood Water Security, or “Bulls” as they are called by the hobos who ride the rails in search of a better life.  Employed by the railroad to break these encampments up they are some of the most brutal men as they beat and berate these homeless people who are simply trying to survive in a world where they are considered lesser human beings.  In 1935 this is how things were for hobos and those who had no money.

Slip is badly beaten but they escape to a small dory that Slip had purchased from a Swedish man sometime before.  They chose to row north to Alaska where Slip felt sure he could find work as a logger.  A man in a fishing trawler comes up alongside of them and offers to help by towing the dory and giving them a warm bed for the night.  They gladly climb aboard and tie the dory off to trail behind them.  Johnny, the boat’s owner, was heading for Alaska to get away from his in-laws who had taken over his home when they had been evicted from theirs.  They decided to separate to cross into Canada in order to avoid border inspections as they lacked travel papers, but they left Annabelle and her pet cockatiel with the fisherman, agreeing to meet with him at a point further north that was agreed upon while scanning the Salish Sea’s charts.

Back in Seattle the car is found with the body in the trunk and the detective, George Hansen, identifies the body as that of a leading union advocate who was recently murdered.  George soon finds information as to the identity of the people who were involved in the murder and uncovers the trail leading to Alaska.  George’s boss is very happy to send him to Alaska in pursuit of these fugitives because he always considered George a bit of an oddball and not good for the other men he oversees.

In the same time the threesome make their way north after having recovered Annabelle and her bird from the fisherman who had kidnapped her.  Annabelle had jumped off the trawler and was barely rescued by Ellis and Slip after she let the bird fly flee for the first time.  Upon continuing their journey they find they are continually pursued by the detective as well as the Floodwater men looking for revenge on the people who killed one of their operatives.  Slip, Ellie, and Annabelle eventually make their way but not without scrapes and bruises from the people who are after them and many sidetracks with people they encounter on along their way north.  An amazingly well written novel and brilliant spiritual prequal to Cold Storage with many twists and plot turns that had me anxious to get to the next page, with a marvelous conclusion to it all!

Literally, Paul.

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