Opening a deep, strange, Alaskan history up the Wolverine River
Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, set in 1920’s Alaska, was a runaway success, eagerly enjoyed by many.
So her second novel was going to be one arriving with very high expectations indeed
She does not disappoint, though this is a different kind of book, the mythic elements exist as more unexplained, puzzling and unresolved for her characters,. And in many ways, writing something a little different has been a good choice. Ivey clearly is not just a one trick pony of a writer
Ivey stays with her home state, one whose landscape and culture clearly deeply resonate for her, and are in her sinews.
To The Bright Edge Of The World is fiction, but reads much more like history. For a start, there is the structure of the novel, set for the most part in 1885, and being the journals of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, and his journey from Perkins Island up the Wolverine River, as part of an opening up of Alaska, not only for the sourcing of gold and copper, but for transport, settlements and trade. Forrester’s quite terrifying and challenging journey through an isolated, beautiful and dangerous landscape is intercut with the diary written by his young wife, Sophie, left behind in Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory, to wait for her husband’s return, which is likely to take a year. There are also other journals from Lieutenant Pruitt, one of Forrester’s party, whose role is to manage various scientific instruments to record the weather, and also, with photography as a fairly new medium, to curate a visual record of the ground-breaking journey. As the vast territory is also home to Native Americans who have inhabited the land, a trapper who is familiar with some of the languages spoken by the different tribes, is also part of Forrester’s party.
In fact, Forrester and his specific expedition and the other people are Ivey’s brilliant invention. Journeys did of course happen, and some of the history of that ‘opening up of Alaska’ also happened, but she used real expeditions as fuel for her imagination, not as ‘fictionalised biography’. This gives freedom
Her account of Forrester’s journey is magnificent, eerie and spell-binding. She winds in some of the shamanic, spiritual traditions of Native Americans, and there are ‘unexplained’ happenings. These do not feel like ‘magic’ or ‘fantasy’ but they do feel inexplicable to a linear, cause-and-effect thinking, and are something which Forrester, Sophie, and others experience, and are left uneasy by, precisely because of their ‘more things in heaven and earth’ nature.
The character of Sophie is particularly interesting. She is an unconventional young woman. Her own family history is creative, free-thinking, and with a strong personal-spiritual identity. Sophie is highly intelligent, and with a passion for the natural world. She is one of those women who almost stand on the threshold of a more modern world, a good generation or two ahead of her time.
Giving the ‘fiction’ she has created even more veracity, Ivey bookends and interleaves the 1885 journals and diaries of the Forresters with letters between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great-nephew, now in his 70s , and Joshua Sloan, the exhibits curator of the Alpine Historical Museum. Walter wishes to gift the writings, and the various artefacts from the journey, to the Museum. It’s a good literary device, allowing Joshua to explore further research, and also allows the reader to compare then and now, as he and Walter, in their letters, talk about the various artefacts, family history, and both of their own stories are opened out and developed by the exploration and development happening to Forrester, Sophie – and of course, Alaska itself
And if all these many delights were not enough – there are many photographs, newspaper clippings, line drawings and plates from books of the time scattered throughout the text.
I truly felt as if I was discovering for myself a window into a strange past.
A magnificent book. Ivey is a more than a bit of a magician. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven also is deeply present in the text, and I confess to having nightmares and being a bit wary of the smaller corvids in my local park (crows) whilst reading this. Her beautiful writing, sure plotting, and fascinating characters wove a satisfying spell, and the ‘strange stuff’ was a seamless and coherent part. I can’t say more, as the reader needs to discover this for themselves, without foreknowledge
I received this book from Amazon Vine UK as an ARC, and strongly recommend it. It will be available hardcover and Kindle, in both the UK and USA on 2nd August. A reading treat in store!
As for me, I hope she is deep within her third book, which I’ll be keenly waiting for…..