Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard

Going to Bend
February 1, 2004

Book Review: Oregon Coast novel tackles rough business of surviving

Nothing really dramatic happens in "Going to Bend," but what does take
place is, for the most part, deeply moving. Diane Hammond's novel is about
a fistful of people who live, love, care for and hurt each other in a
small town on the Oregon Coast.

Where the town is, or which real towns may have inspired the fictional
one, is not so important. The important thing is this: "Her people - Old Man, Paula, Eula, Eddie, Rose, Petie herself - didn't travel. They lived and died in a dead-end place where roads ended instead of began, where the skies wept harsh tears and the ocean hemmed them in as surely as any prison."

The two principal characters are Petie - a tough, blunt woman who is stuck with a shiftless husband and two sons who are worries in different ways - and her friend Rose - who's just as soft as Petie is hard and lives with her teenage daughter, Carissa.

Petie spends much of the book fending off Schiff, a womanizer who owns a Pepsi distributorship and has a shrewish wife. Rose and Carissa devote themselves to Jim, a commercial fisherman who lives with them during the off-season.

Domestic violence and sexual tension sit darkly at the heart of the story, but Hammond does not use them in a sensational way. They are - like other hard facts of life in a small, isolated community - just there, demanding hard choices.

"Going to Bend" is not about victimhood but about surviving. It's about resilience, courage and the power of love. Here's a passage in which Rosie is talking to a friend:

"'When God contemplates Petie, He never seems to have a break in mind ... He just keeps piling it on, and it's been like that as long as I've known her, and none of it's ever been her fault. And she keeps getting up in the morning, just the same.'"

"'Yes, but is she brave, or is she just dogged?'

"'Rose began to gather up their trash. `I don't know. Is there a
difference?'"

The single most remarkable thing about this novel is how fully Hammond has drawn all the characters - men, women and children, locals and newcomers, saints, sinners and in-betweens - and how true they ring. If you've spent any time at all among such individuals, in such a community, you'll recognize her characters.

Here's Schiff, telling Petie about his wife: ``Sometimes I wonder how the hell it happened, you know? God, when I first met her she was sweet all the time, and she looked so good you could watch her walk away forever. She still looks good walking away, only she keeps coming back, you know?''

And here's Jim, ``watching girls stream out of Sawyer Middle School like liquid sin'' while he waits to pick up Rose's daughter: ``An old man, an invisible man, with his faded hair and worn-out eyes and years of wrinkles from looking into the jaws of bad weather. A quiet man who looked with great potency.''

The single most regrettable thing about the book is that Hammond sometimes
slides over the line between empathy and affection into excessive sentimentality for her characters. Some of their interior monologues, though beautifully written, are a little too lofty, and so are some extended speeches toward the end. The worst instance is when Eula, a wise, loving woman who has been like a mother, summons the strength on her deathbed to tell Petie: "Let it go, honey, and like the phoenix you will rise up whole." Hammond's editor let her down there.

Aside from such lapses, "Going to Bend" moves with nary a false step through the intertwined lives of its characters, including Nadine and her brother Roger, Southern California transplants who are trying to make a go of a bread-and-soup restaurant even though he is dying of AIDS.

Her sketches of Petie's step-grandfather and stepfather are dead on. In the way they take setbacks in stride and try to take care of each other - without making a big deal out of it - these are salt-of-the-earth people whose small-scale lives bear all the big themes.

Petie's story is as sad as they come, and the slow revelation of the cruelty that has shaped her life is central to the story. Hammond sums it up in one poignant line, spoken by Petie: "I forget sometimes that not everyone is bad."

From start to ambivalent but hopeful finish, "Going to Bend" is about finding the good in people, and breaking free of painful and unfulfilling experience.

This may be a chick book - and in the right hands it would make a good chick flick - but men should read it, too.

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