Potluck author writes about finding community

PORT ANGELES — As Ana Maria Spagna wrote her book, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, she thought of it just as a bunch of individual stories about her rural life.

But “over time, the theme of community began to rise up, almost against my will,” she said — but “this wasn’t the idealized version of community.” Instead, Potluck turned into a trip inside the real, live, complicated places she’s lived — including Stehekin, her adopted home town high in the Cascades.

It’s a place where potluck dinners bring people together — not because they share all of the same views, but because they are neighbors together in a remote place.

Reading tonight

Spagna, who can see a few parallels between Stehekin and the small towns of the North Olympic Peninsula, will give a reading at the Port Angeles Library, 2210 S. Peabody St., tonight. Admission is free to the 7 p.m. event.

This new book is impressive in its honesty, said Alan Turner, co-owner of Port Book and News in downtown Port Angeles.

“Often, Potluck homes in on the everyday gatherings that, over time, define a community: a makeshift wedding, an art gallery opening, a farewell potluck, a work party, a campfire, a political caucus, a funeral,” Turner notes in his announcement of the author reading.

“Spagna doesn’t shy away from what pushes people apart — pettiness, prejudice and idiosyncrasy — and she marvels at what brings people together and what holds them there,” he said.

Added Spagna: “When I began shaping the book as a whole, I realized I wanted to give people a chance to think about the people and places that have shaped them, what’s been given to them, and what they’ve given back.”

As for Port Angeles, Spagna acknowledges that she doesn’t know it well.

Like other Northwest towns

“It’s bigger than other Washington towns where I’ve lived and spent time — Chelan, Darrington, Rockport.

“But I suspect it’s much like Stehekin and so many Northwest towns, in that people may have very different political or religious values, but they share some important values, too: love for the outdoors first of all, an interest in gardening and good food, a respect for hard work, and a strong sense of, well, community or at least neighborliness.”

Spagna is also author of Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging and the Crosscut Saw, about life on national forest trail crews.

She followed that with Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, the story of her late father Joseph Spagna’s activism in 1957 Tallahassee, Fla.

As a young man her father boarded a city bus there with two other white men and three black men.

They did this in order to get arrested and take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sunnyland Bus, a blend of memoir, history and journalism, won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction prize.

The book “is very sweet … and that’s not a word I use a lot,” Turner said.

“It’s really very heartfelt.”

As she travels through the Northwest reading from Potluck, Spagna is hearing plenty questions about what life is like in a place as remote as Stehekin.

People also ask about the diversity of the community, and how she and her partner, Laurie, are accepted as a lesbian couple.

“We just are,” Spagna said.

“In Potluck,” Turner writes on the Port Book website, www.portbooknews.com, “we discover, again and again, the gift of community — easy and uneasy, deep and enduring and essential.”

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Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at [email protected]

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