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…

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

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