Eowyn Ivey was the author of my favourite book of 2012 and one of my all time favourite reads, her debut novel The Snow Child an extraordinary, accomplished work about a childless couple who leave the close-knit support of their child-filled families to try to make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness.
I’m not the only one who long-awaited the next thing she would write, a book that was first mentioned a couple of years ago, with the suggested title Shadow of the Wolverine and which would eventually be published in 2016 as To the Bright Edge of the World.
I reviewed this title for Bookbrowse, that review (not the same as my comments below) and an article I wrote about Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, can be viewed by members by clicking the link.
Set in 1885, Ivey’s new book was inspired by real events, and in particular by the adventures of the little known Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, an Alaskan Explorer and Decorated US Major General and his Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tananá, and Kóyukuk Rivers.
The author also cites for inspiration Bram Stoker’s Dracula (first-person voices, use of documents and tremendous suspense), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (for its humanity in the face of terror and its time frame) and William Vollmann’s mythological fantasy The Ice-Shirt from the Seven Dream series.
It is narrated firstly through the letters and diary entries of the fictional Lieutenant Allen Forrestor (based on Henry Allen) and his younger wife Sophie, as he makes a commissioned expedition through harsh US owned Alaskan territory up the fictitious Wolverine River, with a small team accompanying him.
His wife Sophie writes him letters and keeps a journal of her time while he is away, so she can share how she spent her time. Sophie is both a woman of her time and ahead of her time, she knows what is expected of her, but has married a man who she hopes accepts she has a mind and a curiosity of her own, a part of her that shall not be tamed.
She takes up photography, learning how to mix chemicals and process plates and spends hours observing birdlife, in some of the most exquisite passages, as she patiently waits to capture a singular event, that might express that moment of pure magic she does not have the words to define, but can recognise instantly in an image, rare though it may be.
In contemporary time, we also read letters between a descendant of Allen Forrestor named Walter Forrester, who has sent the Colonel’s journals, papers and other items for safekeeping to Josh, the exhibitions curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska, hoping to convince him to safeguard the documents and artefacts, given they are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands before colonisation, while still inhabited by native Midnooskies (a Russian word for “people of the Copper River”) and Wolverine River Indians (Ahtna and Eyak tribes).
While it is a novel, the journey upriver was inspired by the expedition of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen (1859 – 1930), a true account Eowyn Ivey came across when the bookshop she worked for acquired a rare copy of Allen’s Report of their Expedition to the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska.
Ivey took the book home for an evening, staying up late to read it, sharing passages with her husband and was completely fascinated by this piece of Alaskan history she had never heard of before, despite growing up and living all her life there.
In 1885, Allen and two men trekked up the Copper River into completely unmapped territory and encountered Native Alaskans who had never seen white people. The men nearly died many times from starvation and exposure, but eventually they made it through the mountains, down the Yukon River and to Saint Michael.
Though inspired by the Colonel’s expedition, the novel is influenced by other encounters and ancient beliefs she became aware of over time, and it was then the idea for the novel developed:
And at some point it struck me—what if a landscape actively reflected the beliefs of its people? And when these military men ventured into Alaska, what if they had encountered those beliefs as living, breathing, tangible forces?
And in a style true to Eowyn Ivey and familiar from her novel The Snow Child (inspired by both a fairy tale and her own life), The Bright Edge of the World might be described she says, as “documentary meets mythology” where certain things the men encounter, they will fail to be able to explain, despite the fact that they all witnessed them. They are things the natives accept and speak of openly, but that these men have no words to describe and are somewhat reluctant to mention.
It is a novel that charts out the recent history of this relatively untamed wilderness and while recognising the beauty and simplicity of a way of life before armies, prospectors and settlers would change it forever, also looks back and recognises that if it were not for those who went first and documented what they found, little of that way of life would be known about and be able to be appreciated today.
The Colonel’s diaries, like the writings of Meriwether Lewis and Captain Cook, are a kind of cursed treasure.
To the Bright Edge of the World is a wonderful introduction to a little known expedition that opened up further the Alaskan frontiers and a delightful story of a well matched couple, who manage to combine their love of nature and the outdoors with the way they live their lives.
Eowyn Ivey manages to inform and entertain in this worthy follow-up to the magical Snow Child, a novel that was always going to be a tough act to follow.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy), thank you to the publisher for providing a copy via NetGalley.