Timothy Egan's 'Winemaker's Daughter'

January 04, 2004|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

The Winemaker's Daughter, by Timothy Egan. Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95.

Larry McMurtry has Texas, Garrison Keillor has Minnesota and Louise Erdrich has the northern Plains. With this novel, his first work of fiction, Timothy Egan stakes his claim as the voice of the Pacific Northwest. He makes a compelling case.

A national correspondent for The New York Times, Egan has demonstrated in three books of nonfiction that he is a page-turning storyteller with a naturalist's eye for the landscapes of Washington state and beyond. Now he gives us Rainier cherries "the color of flushed cheeks"; "the boiled-spinach greens and metallic sheen of Lake Washington in winter"; and irrigation pipes that represent the "coronary veins of the basin."

Water is to the Western states what topsoil is to the Midwest and oil is to the South, and it is the ever-present battle to control water that drives much of this book. As one character says, water is "the most consistent shaper of destiny on the planet."

You certainly can't make wine without it. Octogenarian Angelo Cartolano left Italy as a boy, was interned with other Italians in Montana during World War II, then left to work on the Grand Coulee Dam. After the war, he settled in eastern Washington and became the first American to grow Nebbiolo grapes, the kind required to make some of Italy's greatest wines.

His daughter Brunella returns home in the fourth year of a terrible drought. Brunella, who lives in Seattle and prepares cultural-impact statements for waterfront projects, is brassy, free-spirited and smart enough to know that her brother, Niccolo, should eventually take over the family's winemaking operation.

But Niccolo, a fire jumper, and several others perish when no water comes forth for their pumps during a horrific blaze. Where did the water go? Much of it apparently was diverted to a Native American tribe that is building a casino. But an investigation forces Brunella to confront her father's indirect role in Niccolo's death at the same time she is fighting for a lone fisherman against the big-money powers that want the Seattle waterfront project approved.

Egan has a rich, lyrical writing style, and he takes a journalist's delight in weaving tidbits of information throughout his story. We learn that the melting point for gold is 1,945 degrees, that blue is the rarest of rose colors, that Seattle had two Swedish and two Japanese daily newspapers in 1900. He obviously knows, loves and worries about that far corner of the country.

The mystery that propels this novel loses steam toward the end. A trip to Italy feels rushed and unnecessary; one of the characters, Brunella's former boss, begins giving speeches instead of having conversations; and the deus ex machina begins grinding steadily. "When in doubt, kill somebody off" will solve plot quandaries, but it leaves readers unsatisfied, especially when they can predict who's about to get the ax.

That said, this remains a hugely impressive first novel. Egan deftly touches on important themes, such as what's lost when society values getting a government check for doing nothing more than the hard labor and forgotten art of making a great wine or catching a fresh salmon.

Every wine tells a story, Angelo Cartolano believes. Let's raise a glass to toast Egan's effort and encourage him to tell many more.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at The Des Moines Register. He grew up in an Iowa town called Granger, population 600.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.