In “To the Bright Edge of the World,” novelist Eowyn Ivey spins a moving, fantastic tale of a 19th-century expedition up a remote Alaskan river that finds more than just wilderness. Ivey appears Thursday, Aug. 4, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
At the outset of Eowyn Ivey’s lustrous new novel about a 19th-century expedition into the Alaskan wilderness, a descendant of expedition leader Colonel Allen Forrester writes to an Alaska museum curator that some of the colonel’s diary entries about the adventure were “downright fantastical,” and said to be induced by hallucinations. What an excellent premise for fiction!
“To the Bright Edge of the World” (Little, Brown, $26, 417 pp.) hearkens back to a time 20 years after the Civil War, when the last national frontier for nonnative Americans is the vast and inhospitable territory of Alaska. Forrester heads the exploration of the wild Wolverine River (an invented place name) for potential mining. His skeletal team includes two soldiers, two white traders and several Indians. Forrester’s wife, Sophie, intends to travel part of the way with the group, but after finding out she is pregnant, she remains behind at the Fort Vancouver army post (in Vancouver, Wash.).
Ivey bases her story in part on a real-life Army expedition in 1885 to the Copper River and environs in southeast Alaska.
The author of “To the Bright Edge of the World” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
The Wolverine River is regarded by native people as the “place where men starve,” and is only sparsely inhabited by local Indians. Along the 500-mile trek through a harshly beautiful landscape, the expedition party battles constant hunger, injury and grave illness. Despite persistent rumors of a tribe that practices cannibalism, the native people they encounter are welcoming and helpful. At times they serve as guides, healers and spiritual guardians.
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Back home, Sophie faces hardship and suffering of her own, but she is resolute and forges a distinctly independent path, chafing at the conventions and strictures of her more conservative social set. She develops a passion for photography, which is in its nascent development in the late 19th century.
The account of the Colonel’s backcountry journey reads like a documentary until … it doesn’t. The deeper his party travels into the interior, the more mysterious the experience becomes. There is evidence of indigenous myths becoming reality; birds, otters and wolverines take human form, astonishing and unnerving the white explorers. As they approach a northern lake, the travelers are spooked by stories of a prehistoric beast roaming the waters, searching for human prey.
Ivey’s writing is assured and deftly paced. She presents a pleasing chorus of voices and writing styles in an amalgam of journals, letters, newspaper clippings, greeting cards, official reports and more. While the Colonel’s diary entries are log-like in their matter-of-fact descriptions (at least at the start of the trip), Sophie’s writing is more intimate and idiosyncratic, revealing her independent spirit and kind heart.
The couple’s moving love story binds the multilayered narrative together. For much of the book, husband and wife are separated by 2,000 miles and contrasting experiences that are transforming their lives. These changes test their relationship, but as a result, their love anneals and grows stronger. The fact that their only means of communicating with each other is through letters that take weeks to deliver heightens the intrigue and drama.
Ivey’s first novel, “The Snow Child,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her follow-up act is certain to garner its own accolades as readers discover its many unfolding pleasures.