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.
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.”
A raven shape shifts into a trickster who brings Allen and Sophie good fortune and sorrow.
The New York Public Library. (1849). Raven.
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.
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…