Even today, with "New Urbanism" developments like Seabrook going up, the Washington coast is a
place where those on the edge of society seek out the edge of the continent. This held especially true in 1942, on the heelsof the Great Depression, when Norah Berg and her husband came to Copalis Beach (known today as North Beach), hoping to find a modicum of peace and stability in their unhappy lives. The legacy of their search is the Northwest classic Lady on the Beach (1952).
The book opens simply and poignantly: "My husband and I are beachcombers, and sometimes when we walk
our beach we are all alone there with the seagulls and the sandpipers. Then I feel as though I were holding the sea and all the sky in my arms, but also small enough to hide behind a grain of sand." After a brief description of their "poor man’s paradise," Norah Berg (1897-1958) recounts her troubled youth, beginning in Montana with the death of her parents and first husband and ending with her living alone in a Seattle rooming house, trapped in "the squirrel cage of alcoholism."
In Seattle she is drawn to taverns for company, but also to the waterfront, where she befriends aging sailors and fishermen. It’s here, on the Salt Dock, where fishing boats take on salt and ice, that she meets Old Sarge Berg, a burly gunnery sergeant about to retire from the marines. Sarge is good at two things: cooking and drinking. Unfortunately, once she and Sarge get together, their drinking only worsens. They are in fast decline when the opportunity to become caretakers at a rundown beach resort in Ocean City presents itself and they take it-venturing, in the recovery parlance of today, on a "geographic" to the coast.
In many respects, Lady on the Beach is a sad yet insightful look at the suffering brought on by alcoholism. Despite their hard work in restoring the resort cabins, the teetotaler owner fires them after he learns that they drink. This leads Norah to wonder how any nondrinker could understand "the enormity of our temptation, our overwhelming self-doubts, our soul-destroying sense of guilt, the almost unbearable strain of our attempts at self-discipline." In desperation they rent one of the mud shacks that make up Ocean City.
It is here that they find a sense of belonging. Life slowly improves for them as they join the community of clam diggers, loggers, fruit tramps (called "bluebills"), immigrants, drifters, excons, and other refugees from modern life that live along the 18-mile stretch of beach from Gray’s Harbor to the Quinault Reservation. She and Sarge get by like many others: scavenging the beach for firewood, picking mushrooms and blackberries in the woods, and corralling salmon in the creek. Friends bring them locally grown fruit and vegetables, and during hunting season they are treated to venison, bear meat, and wildfowl.
However, as Berg asserts, "the talk year round mostly concerned clams," and once the commercial clamming season starts, people armed with clam guns and burlap sacks crowd the beach to dig for razor clams. She introduces us to champion diggers such as the blind woman who locates clams by using her bare feet to feel the subtle indentations in the sand where the clams burrow, and the buyers for the canneries who wait above the beach for the diggers to cash in their loads. The best diggers collect more than a thousand clams on a single low tide. Yet the Office of Price Administration set prices so low that buyers often weigh the clams without washing the sand off first to allow diggers a few extra cents on each haul.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Lady on the Beach is the depiction of the unofficial settlements that dot Copalis Beach during this period-the kind of outsider communities a cultural anthropologist would delight in studying. These include The Old Glory Hole, a cluster of former cannery shacks where migrant workers winter between harvests; Big Root and Jetty Camp, abandoned Works Progress Administration work camps where former prison inmates and psychiatric patients find escape from the world; and Oyehut, an isolated colony of Finnish "exiles" made up of "strange men, hard drinking, with their own code of honor."
Near the end of Lady on the Beach, Berg obtains a typewriter and begins writing letters prolifically, telling everyone about the life she and Sarge have made for themselves. She sends one letter to the publisher of Time, who prints it in the magazine, bringing a flurry of public attention to Norah and Sarge. By this time they have not had a drink in a year and their lives are in fairly good order, though she continues to be amazed at how "our beach seems to attract fantastic people embarked on strange adventures."
Norah Berg wrote Lady on the Beach with the help of Charles Samuels, a professional writer
assigned by the book’s publisher. Along with fame, the book brought its share of trouble for Norah and Sarge, including tourists pestering them at their home and a painful libel suit brought by a person mentioned only once in the book. Norah Berg died at age 61 after attending (of all things) a clam chowder feed, and Sarge passed away a year later. Though out of print for four decades, Lady on the Beach has been reissued twice in limited editions since 1995 by nonprofit organizations in North Beach.
According to literary scholar Donna C. Stanton, women’s autobiography often combines "the personal and historico-cultural, the elegiac and the picaresque, the illustrative and reflective." Norah Berg’s Lady on the Beach has all these attributes-plus one of the most authentic views of the Washington coast you’ll ever find.
Peter Donahue is author of the novel Madison House (2005) and coeditor of Reading Portland: The City in Prose (2006) and Reading Seattle: The City in Prose (2004).