Thru a glass darkly

Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, premiered in 2012 to critical acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and best-seller success. Expectations for her newly published second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, are high. It has been four years in the making. And, after devouring this spine-tingling voyage into the belly of Alaska’s interior, it’s more than safe to say that Ivey fans will not be disappointed by this wonderful romantic odyssey.

Chatting from her home in rural Alaska, Ivey confided that she opted to not structure the story of her new book with a straightforward narrative. She felt it was better served by utilizing everyday writing conventions. This led to a novel stitched together by journal entries, letters, news articles, pictures, even itineraries. She skips neatly from one to the next, jumping from events in the 1870s and 1880s to present day. This technique works beautifully. The tension builds slowly. Secrets are hinted at, then teased and maybe divulged. Ivey let me know what was driving this peripatetic construction: “I want the reader to wonder what comes next—journal entry, picture, letter from the museum curator, something new, not introduced before.”

Her phantasmagorical novel is grounded in real events. Ivey shared with me that many years ago she was first attracted to this story’s potential by explorer Henry T. Allen’s exploits in Alaska’s uncharted regions. “I was blown away by his real adventure,” she said. Much later, after researching the roots of Alaska folklore and spirituality among the indigenous peoples of rural Alaska, Ivey realized she had the ingredients for a story that could dramatize the intersection of two unique cultures.

What emerges from this mash-up of cultures is an elegant Alaskan magic realism—an enchanting adventure soaked in the folklore and myths of Alaska’s sparsely inhabited regions, where ravens cawing from the trees might be just ravens, or perhaps shamans wielding a wicked, ribald sense of humor. The rub, of course, is that Ivey’s men, who spy these ravens or shamans taunting them from their perches, don’t know what to make of them. They’re western men with their rational minds and it’s terribly difficult for them to accept what they are seeing with their very own eyes, constrained by belief systems not flexible enough to fathom the myth-infused reality of indigenous peoples.

Representing these more traditional values in the book are Lt. Colonel Allen Forrester, Lieutenant Pruitt, Sergeant Tillman and Samuelson, a trapper guide/translator. Ivey embeds Nat’aggi with this team. She is a Native woman who tells them she killed her husband after learning he was really an otter who had cheated on her with another otter. When Forrester presses Samuelson on the believability of such an outlandish claim, the translator replies, “They believe it is a thin line separates animal & man … They hold that some can walk back and forth over that line, here a man, there a beast.”

While Forrester is off on his intrepid Alaska trek, his pregnant wife Sophie is left behind at the army barracks in Vancouver, Washington. With Sophie, Ivey said she discovered someone who “shatters the myth of the demure Victorian woman.” Ivey knew there were a number of women then living a very different life, “women who were tramping around the wilds of Alaska.” And though Sophie does not venture into the wild, quite the opposite actually, she does carve her own path. Bored by the cloistered, tightly knit social web of army wives, whose gossip and small talk drive her to distraction, she finds her identity in photography. Sophie pursues her new avocation with zestful glee. “Since I was a young girl and first caught sight of a mourning warbler … or first heard the song of a wood thrush … I have sought some form to express myself … I might work with light itself. It has always captivated me, the way it shifts and alters all that it touches, significant both in presence and in absence.”

Her camera becomes a great deal more than a mere instrument which uses light to capture nature’s objects. It grows into an extension of Sophie’s persona, a tool granting her the power to mold reality into the shape she wants to present it. From her lens the tiny hummingbird soars to new heights. Sophie’s interactions with nature via her camera function as a perfect contrast to her husband’s often hostile confrontations with nature.

It is through these equally compelling glass darklies, one no more perfect than the other, that Ivey challenges her readers’ grasp of reality. Which is more real? Which a better guide thru our tangled existence? To that enigma, she lets each of us decide on our own.

Originally published in the Anchorage Press on August 18, 2016.

• David Fox is a freelance writer who resides in Anchorage. Contact him at dfox@gci.com.

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