To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge

Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester, June 25, 1885:

“Pruitt keeps shouting above the storm–Do you feel that? Can’t you feel that?

What he says makes no sense. He says there are hands on him. Something pulls at him. He says he has to run. I have warned him to stay put.

(undated entry)

My dearest Sophie. I pray you will read this. You are first and last to me.

I do not know if we will survive the night. They are all around us. They scream and cry so that it is hard to think to put these words on the page.

You must know that I love you.

I am not afraid of death but instead of the passage from here to oblivion, of being aware of its coming. I would rather have been run through with a spear than face this long dread.”

Eowyn Ivey’s novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is truly a standout for me, a cut above the rest.

Many of you know that I’m partial to nature and wilderness stories, especially historical ones. To the Bright Edge of the World reminds me of one of my all-time favorite novels, Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. The novel and short stories of Anthony Doerr come to mind as well when I read Eowyn Ivey’s writing, which is lyrical and replete with exquisite detail. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter is another fine book, a memoir, in the same vein.

“I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.” – Jane, Beyond Eden Rock.  — I was browsing on Goodreads and found Jane’s endorsement of To the Bright Edge of the World. Her words spoke to me because they are my sentiments about the novel, too, and I couldn’t have said it better.

I loved Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, which was selected for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book in 2014. Like The Snow Child, To the Bright Edge of the World takes place in Ivey’s native Alaska. It’s a great love story, a  wilderness tale of a hero and heroine’s quests infused with magical realism, and a flawlessly researched portrayal of 19th century Alaska.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must lead a dangerous, seemingly impossible expedition through the fictitious Wolverine River Valley deep in the Alaskan wilds of 1885, a journey no one has ever survived. His pregnant wife, Sophie Forrester, stays behind in Vancouver Barracks, destined to have adventures and heartbreaks of her own.

Ivey has cleverly constructed the narrative entirely from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, military reports, photographs, and other documents.

We, the readers, are privy to the contemporary correspondence between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great nephew, and Joshua Sloan, who is part Native American and curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska. Walter sends his great uncle’s papers to Joshua in the hopes that he’ll display and archive them for safekeeping. As Joshua makes his way through the journals, diaries, and letters, he and Walter piece together Allen and Sophie’s stories, fill in the gaps, and reflect on their own lives.

As always, Ivey’s descriptions of geography and landscape take us vividly to long-ago Alaska:

“The canyon bound the Wolverine so that when, over the course of the winter, the ice moved, it crumpled violently. Great blocks three feet thick & as much as twenty feet high had been torn asunder & turned sideways. It seemed an impassable range of buckles & ridges & upended slabs of ice pressed up against the canyon walls, which are vertical rock the color of lead.”

Here are Sophie’s words as she undergoes her own dark night of the soul:

Sophie Forrester, Vancouver Barracks, April 26, 1885:

“…it continued its steady and hard rapping, and the sound became more and more horrible…The raven stopped its knocking and cocked an eye toward me.

I then noticed something most peculiar….A bird’s eye ought to be flattened in shape, with a dark iris surrounded by a dark-gray sclera, and entirely unmoving in its socket. Yet this eye was round, with white sclera, and it rotated about in the socket. It looked nothing like a bird’s eye, but rather that of a mammal. More to the point, a human.” 

 

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A raven shape shifts into a trickster who brings Allen and Sophie good fortune and sorrow.

The New York Public Library. (1849). Raven.

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Sophie Forrester teaches herself the art of photographing birds. Her descriptions of the technical and creative challenges are beautifully rendered, and inspiring.

The New York Public Library. (1901 – 1914).Horned And Tufted Puffins.

 

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Allen Forrester’s darker mission is to assess tribal threats to US expansion in Alaska, even as native tribes give life-saving aid to Forrester and his men. The author weaves Native American myths into the plot. These fierce stories blur the line between humans, animals and nature. In the end, the hard wisdom of the stories so valued by indigenous people seems far truer than the scientific knowledge possessed by “civilized” people.

The New York Public Library. (1869-04). Indian summer encampment.

 

Have you read To the Bright Edge of the World or The Snow Child? What did you think? Can you recommend similar historical books about nature, travel, and adventure, fiction or nonfiction? Click on the comments link in the left sidebar and let us know.

What does Tribe (the book and the noun) have to do with family reunions? I’ll be writing about that in my next post…

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

WelcomeToTheIceCube

“For all its occasional monotony, driving a dogsled never let my mind wander. It was an overwhelmingly physical experience: the cold, the shifting runners, the wandering trail. It made my mind shallower. There was the brushing sound of snow under the sled. There were the dogs, the beautiful dogs, running, and I could spend hours watching the changing, hypnotic rhythms of their back legs punching up and down. Occasionally I talked to them, and then I’d drift off in midsentence and recall the rest of my thoughts minutes later. Or else I’d run up a hill, or fix a tangle, or scooter my feet to keep warm. It didn’t matter. I was still just driving dogs.”

Blair Braverman sent me an advance copy of her just-published memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.

I’m so glad she did, and not just because it was great reading in the middle of a hot July. This is an exquisitely written coming of age story about Blair’s love affair with the North, focusing especially on her stays in Norway, where she set up a small museum, learned to drive sled dogs, and befriended a town; and her stint as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska.

I loved reading about Blair’s adventures, and her depictions of nature and the wild are so well done. But for me the heart of the story was her relationship with the folks in a northern Norwegian town, Mortenhals, especially a sixties-something shopkeeper, Arild, who becomes a beloved friend and Blair’s Norwegian “father.”

There is a dark theme that motivates Blair to make her way in the North that is just as strong as her love of the harsh and beautiful land, but this is not really a memoir about trauma: there is so much more light than shadow.

Raised in California, Blair had a clear calling for the North, but one of her first stays in Norway had an unfortunate twist. As a 16-year-old exchange student, she didn’t feel safe around the strange, sexually threatening father of the family she was placed with. Her subsequent journeys North become, in part, a way for Blair to prove to herself she could be tough and strong in a world where women are often vulnerable to physically threatening men.

If you are a fan of autobiographical writing, you’ll appreciate the quiet, intimate scenes of small town life just as much, if not more, as Blair’s adventures out in the elements. I marveled at the skill with which Blair rendered scene after scene, and found myself deconstructing long passages so I could capture some of her magic in my writing.

Blair is now a dogsledder in northern Wisconsin and training to race the Iditerod in 2019. She’ll have lots more to write about, which is great for us readers who love top-notch memoirs and nature writing.

Here’s a 9-minute look at what it’s like to run a 100-mile dogsled race.

 

Rhythm of the Wild by Kim Heacox

“Looking back, I see now that Denali did more than charm me that first summer; it saved me. The whole damn place beguiled me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Call me crazy or blessed or crazy blessed. But I swear that again and again Denali has done this–made me buckle down and find inspiration and become the free man I am today.”   Kim Heacox, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park

Rhythm of the Wild book cover

“What you hold, dear reader, is a story of love and hope, equal parts natural history, human history, personal narrative, and conservation polemic. I make no attempt to be a neutral journalist, a rare bird in today’s corporate culture. I’m a story teller.”

At the moment, Alaska is burning, and I’d love to hear Kim Heacox’s thoughts about this. I recently finished reading his new book, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park, and I liked it so much I bought a copy of his first memoir about Alaska, The Only Kayak, and liked that one too.

Denali Mountain

Denali. Wikipedia.

I’ve tried to persuade my husband to read the latter book, as he’s a kayaker and a Beatles lover, as Heacox is. I believe Heacox and J. are kindred spirits, but so far no luck, J. hasn’t picked up the book–he’s not a particularly avid reader. However, he has been to Alaska, while I have not, so I think that counts for more than reading two books about Alaska.

Kim Heacox is an award-winning writer (with four books for National Geographic to his credit), a photographer, a speaker, a conservationist, and a lover of Alaska and Denali. (Denali, the mountain, which is the highest in North America, and Denali National Park.)

 

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear. NPS photo.

He and his wife, Melanie, have resided in Alaska for over thirty years; they are two remarkable people who have devoted their lives to educating others about the inestimable value of our wilderness areas. Heacox writes in a very personal way about Alaska and Denali, weaving together his own wilderness stories with coming of age in the Northwest during the 1960s and 70s. I admire him for many reasons, among them his talent for lyrical writing and his willingness to be vulnerable as he shares his love for the wilderness that is Alaska.

As I read, I began to feel sorry for the tourists Heacox describes who find their way to Denali but after a few short days must return to their Dilbert cubicle lives in cities and suburbs. Then I realized that has been much of my life, too. Heacox paints such a compelling picture of Alaska he made me feel deprived for never having experienced this wild, remote place.

Heacox recounts his fascination with the Beatles and their reinvention of music – from an early age he identified with outsiders and challengers of the status quo. Naturally, he’s been deeply influenced by “outsider” environmentalists as well, including  Edward Abbey and Adolph Murie. He writes about their legacies in Rhythm of the Wild.

Those of you who follow my blog know I’m a fan of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry and other influential writers who care about nature and wilderness. I’ll look for more writing by Kim Heacox in the future. I consider him an important addition to my nature and conservation bookshelf. He’s the kind of writer we should be reading if we want to protect our national parks and take climate change seriously.

Here are a few enticing samples of this singular voice in Rhythm of the Wild:

“Years ago in a cowboy cafe in Moab, Utah, I met a nine-fingered guitarist who poured Tobasco on his scrambled eggs and told me matter-of-factly that Utah was nice, Montana too. And of course, Colorado. But any serious student of spirituality and the American landscape must one day address his relationship with Alaska, and once in Alaska, he must confront Denali, the heart of the state, the state of the heart….by Denali he meant both the mountain and the national park.”

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls. NPS photo.

“Denali is what America was; it’s the old and new, the real and ideal, the wild earth working itself into us on days stormy and calm, brutal and beautiful, unforgiving and blessed. It’s where we came from, long before television and designer coffee, even agriculture itself. Before we lost our way and granted ourselves dominion over all living things, before our modern, paradoxical definitions of progress and prosperity, and too much stuff; it’s the lean, mean, primal place buried in our bones no matter how much we might deny it, no matter how fancy our homes, how busy our routines, how cherished our myths. Denali resides in each of us as the deep quiet, the profound moment, the essence of discovery. It offers a chance to find our proper size in this world.”

The publisher of Rhythm of the Wild kindly provided me with an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC).

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, primarily from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts.

Northern Lights and trees

A Wolf Called Romeo

A Wolf Called Romeo book cover“It was one of those still days when you could hear snowdrifts collapsing in hisses, the sun so dazzling off the white-crusted ice that we seemed suspended on a cloud, bathed in light radiating from below. There we lay, three different species bound by a complex, often bitter history, taking simple comfort in the others’ presence, the sun’s warmth, and the passing of another winter.”   A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans

This winter I wanted to be sure to write about a remarkable work of nonfiction that I read a few months ago, A Wolf Called Romeo by Nick Jans. A winter storm is moving in to our parts today, so it seemed a good opportunity to settle in and revisit this captivating story about a very unusual wolf who “courted” the town of Juneau, Alaska. Nick Jans has lived in Alaska for more than three decades and is a nature writer of the highest order. If you love wildlife, wolves, and dogs, you won’t want to miss this book, and you’ll likely want to read Jans’ other work as well.

No one has solved the mystery of why a black wolf wanted to make friends with Nick’s dogs and the dogs of the other townspeople who let their pets romp in the vast open spaces outside of Juneau. The black wolf was playful and unfailingly polite, chivalrous, almost courtly, which inspired Nick’s wife to call him Romeo. For half a dozen years or so, Romeo seemed to confine himself to an area of about seven square miles outside of Juneau, whereas wolves usually roam a territory of hundreds of square miles. Romeo spent long days with his domesticated companions, while keeping his distance from their human owners. He’d disappear for days at a time; at least once Romeo was spotted with a pack of wolves that passed through the area.

This got to be a complicated and controversial situation for the citizens of Juneau. Many of them grew to love Romeo and were fascinated by the rare opportunity to observe a wolf up close, while others felt wolves were to be hunted or should stay where they belonged, in the wild. Some worried Romeo might attack their pets. Rules had to be devised about how to behave around Romeo. For example, Romeo was not to be fed, so as to keep his hunting and survival skills sharp. People were advised to keep their distance from Romeo and avoid physical contact.

It’s hard to believe that at one time Nick Jans hunted and killed wolves, because he is so passionate about protecting Romeo. He recounts the history of his own relationship with wildlife, as well as the fraught relationship between humans and wolves as the American frontier was settled.

Nick observed Romeo closely for several years. He recorded his observations with the intention of writing this book which was ten years in the making. I found myself worrying along with Nick every time Romeo disappeared. For, of course, Romeo’s befriending of the town also left him vulnerable to aspects of civilization that are destructive to wildlife and nature.

This is an emotionally powerful read. Nick Jans reminds me of Barry Lopez, a nature writer I greatly admire. Here, though, Nick has made the story of the relationship between humans and the wild very personal. Romeo is fascinating and haunting, a loner caught between two worlds, not fully at home in either one of them. Thanks to Nick Jans, his story has touched those of us who may go a lifetime without seeing a wolf in the wild.

You can catch a glimpse of Romeo here.

Here is a wonderful site to find out about wolves, Wolf Song of Alaska.

Norfolk pine in a snowstorm

A good day to read A Wolf Called Romeo

 

Reading The Snow Child in a Deep Freeze

frost on window

Frost on our window

It was a bright winter’s day when I took this photograph, but it came out dark, evoking for me the deep winter chill of our snowbound evenings in upstate New York, which are perfect for reading books by the fire.

Before winter’s end, you must read The Snow Child.  Based on a Russian folk tale, The Snow Child suspends readers between fantasy and reality in remote, 1920s Alaska. (One of many English versions of the Russian folk tale is “The Little Daughter of the Snow” in Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.)

Mabel and Jack, a childless, middle-aged couple, move from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan Territory to homestead on 160 acres of land. For ten years, they’ve been locked in a private world of grief over their stillborn child; Mabel, especially, hopes to escape from and the young families and children in Pennsylvania who remind her of her sadness.

One day, Mabel and Jack build a snow child whom they dress in a red scarf and mittens. The snow child melts, but a little girl with a fox begins to appear in the woods around their cabin. Is she real, or is she an unearthly fairy child born of their own longing? You’ll find yourself seesawing between Jack’s harsh, real-world view of who, exactly, the girl they call Faina is, and Mabel’s wishful, fantastical, mystical one.

For me, The Snow Child (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) was ideal reading: perfect for the time of year, entrancing, deceptively simple storytelling set in a frontier that has fascinated me of late. I kept thinking of the breathtaking world evoked in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Lopez writes of virgin land, animals and people at risk from encroaching civilization, and I think of Faina as a metaphor for the wild and untamable.

Faina embodies, for me, my deep-rooted desire to have and love children. Mabel and Jack, through Faina, do find their hearts’ desire but, like all parents, they eventually must let go.

I loved how Mabel finds another kind of fulfillment through her art, and learns to channel grief, insights, and a growing love of the natural world into renderings and sketches.

The Snow Child is our city’s “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” choice for 2014. The author, Eowyn Ivey, will travel here from her home in Alaska for three days (March 19- 21) of readings and talks at local schools, libraries, and Rochester’s Writers & Books.

We take “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book” very seriously here. We began marking it in January with countless book clubs discussing The Snow Child over tea and hot chocolate; writing workshops and readings by Ken Waldman, an Alaskan poet and fiddler; short, short plays that contain the word “fox” written and performed by locals at Geva Theatre Center; and for kids, making paper snowflakes and readings/discussions of fairy tales from Russia and around the world.

Still to come:  on February 20 a presentation of “Alaskan Odyssey: Cruising the Inside Passage and Beyond”; on February 28 an exhibition of winter images at Image City Photography Gallery; on March 4 a demonstration of basket weaving in the Alaskan tribal pattern; and a Snow Day party with music, fruit pies in flavors inspired by the novel, and a scavenger hunt on March 7.

On March 8 a how-to-survive-in-the-snow adventure at Mendon Ponds Park sponsored by the local Sierra Club chapter will explore whether or not a little girl could survive in the winter wilderness. Also on March 8 there will be an Afternoon of Winter Fancies: Creative Movement Workshops and Flights of Winter Fancy at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance; and on March 18 – 19 an exhibition of quilts inspired by The Snow Child, sponsored by the Genesee Valley Quilt ClubEach quilt will be a “novel” and feature the artist’s love of quilting and reading.

On March 4, Rick French of Pack, Paddle, Ski, who has been to just about every country in the world, will host a Sleeping in Ice class at the Penfield Public Library. (Rick has spent many nights sleeping in igloos and snow shelters; my husband travelled to Alaska with him, but that’s another story.) Rick will demonstrate how to make an igloo in the backyard and how to survive a surprise blizzard in the mountains.

For those of you who are local, you can find a complete schedule of Snow Child events here.

Snow Maiden in forest

Snow Maiden, Viktor M. Vasnetsov

The Snow Child book cover

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