In Light on the Devils, Louise Wagenknecht explores growing up in a rugged culture of loggers and foresters in the boom of the logging industry and with the people who built that industry. The book opens powerfully, beginning with the suicide of a Forest Ranger in the bust of the 1990s. "In some unillusioned corner of my mind," Wagenknecht writes, "I had known for some time that the old world of loggers and endless realms of timber were gone."
Wagenknecht's hybrid memoir/natural history curio/genealogical survey—which follows her other lumber town memoir, the 2003 book White Poplar, Black Locust—takes place in the Klamath Mountains of northwest California, mostly in and around Happy Camp and later in the Seiad Valley, where the devils of the title make their first appearance.
Recounting her blue-collar life as a series of hikes, attending commonplace schools and voraciously reading whatever she can lay her hands on, Wagenknecht narrates her struggles of entering womanhood and trying to win the acceptance of her stepfather—a "piss-fir" in the Forest Service.
As a recollection of the conflicts of puberty and the messy ordeals of family, it is sporadically successful, but when it comes to probing the dissatisfactions of growing up female in a male-dominated mining town—or any kind of deeper context, really—Light on the Devils comes across as a fastidious study in marginalia. One of the problems is editorial: There is an absence of any sort of filter to sift out the fascinating details of a vanishing way of life from the tedious rehashing of everyday activities. Lengthy sentences concerning the collective gutting of a fish are given equal weight with the eruption of a massive wildfire threatening the community. Which isn't terrible, as long as you enjoy reading about the collective gutting of a fish.
Much of Light on the Devils is stultifying, tonelessly dictated in a sort of staccato chronology that sounds more like the blueprint of a book than a book itself. More and more, the story drags into hunting treks, compulsive inventories of tree names, unremarkable conversations with her sister and one entire chapter dedicated to an uneventful tennis season.
There are a few sections in Light on the Devils that are absorbing. The tragic deaths of two classmates and Wagenknecht's intimate knowledge of the interplay between logging companies and government conservation are told affectingly, and her use of journal entries from the early pioneers of the region illustrates the rigor of Wagenknecht's eclectic mind.
As her life shuffles from adolescence through the frustrating predicaments of menstruation and school dances, Wagenknecht displays little connection and less joy in what she is copiously recounting. Though the beginning is powerful, the story deflates by the time she recounts her departure for Chico State College in the late 1960s.
Wagenknecht is a capable writer, and Lights on the Devils—with its intriguing title—has the potential to be a revealing portrait of a mining-town daughter. Without direction, though, it ends up feeling more like filler.