Research for Eowyn Ivey’s new book took her into the heart of Alaska and onto the Copper River, described here, long before the draft was complete and bound and the book published.
Official publication day is today, the launch in Palmer, Alaska. On the page, the action revolves around Wolverine River, a tributary she invented for her first novel, The Snow Child.
There are many other similarities with her previous work beyond the setting, including recurring themes of exploration and discovery, life on the frontier, and the magical properties of love.
In interview, discussing her childhood reading, one can see where some of the qualities her own characters possess are those she admired as a reader, even a young one.
“Some of the first books I read on my own and adored were The Boxcar Children, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, Little House in the Big Woods. Like a lot of young readers it seems, I was drawn to stories of children in extreme conditions, surviving by their own wit and skill, and I think that partly fed my desire to tell the story of The Snow Child.”
Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must survive extreme conditions on his expedition up the Wolverine River, into the heart of Alaska in 1855. His travels were inspired by an historical military expedition but Allen and his wife, Sophie, are products of Eowyn Ivey’s imagination.
It is Allen’s passion for exploration which draws Sophie to him. “It is something I love very much about him. He goes not in search of obstacles, only the paths around them. Anything seems possible.” Their relationship is a companionate one, and she misses him while he is away. “When expectation falls to ruins, what is there left for love?”
She finds the company of the women left behind tiresome, with their “false-fronted and thin nature of civilized discourse”. For Sophie, too, longs to explore her environment. She is curious and strong-willed, opinionated and intelligent. “That is the excitement. We catch only glimpses, a burst of movement, a flap of wings, yet it is life itself beating at shadow’s edge. It is the unfolding of potential; all of what we might experience and see and learn awaits us.”
Readers come to know Allen and Sophie primarily through their own words. Diaries dominate but also there are some letters (there were some of these in The Snow Child too), which not only reveal character but provide essential detail to ground readers. (There are other documents too: drawings — of otter tracks and midwifery techniques — and photographs — of people and landscapes.)
“Ah, and this is the trouble with a diary. We are allowed to stand too long before its mirror and gaze at ourselves, where we unavoidably find vanity and fault.”
At times, however, when alone and suffering, both writers find it hard to record the extreme challenges they face, particularly losses (The Snow Child is haunted by losses too, some of which stem to an experience in the author’s pregnancy, which she describes in the interview linked above).
“Such pathetic instruments, this diary, this pen in my hand. What can they do but slice into the wound, flay and pin my sorrow to the page like a dissected organ? I would rather throw it all away, every page, every pitiful hope.”
But beyond the personal sorrows and difficulties, there are broader injustices which Sophie and Allen observe and attempt to combat. Both are detail-oriented and observant, willing to wait for the evidence to present itself rather than fall back on common beliefs.
Much of the ignorance of the time, in terms of a heavily racialized society and social hierarchies therein, is almost overwhelming for Sophie, who chides herself for not speaking out about another woman’s mistreatment and condemnation of a Chinese servant boy in her home.
“Why do we insist on inflicting more suffering on a word that is already fraught with it? It is here that I must part ways with Father’s romantic spirit, for I suspect that it is a curse of nature, some original instinct that we have failed to shed. And I am no better than others, for in the face of it, I would keep quiet and retreat.”
Allen and Sophie are at the core of To the Bright Edge of the World, but there is a contemporary framework, also epistolary: letters exchanged between a man who has submitted their records to a museum and the man who has transcribes their papers.
Josh and Walt develop a friendship, and their written exchanges afford the opportunity to allow some thematic elements in Allen and Sophie’s story to reverberate across the decades as well. A parallel theme about acceptance emerges in the contemporary storyline. “I’ll tell you one thng about history- we leave a lot of carnage in our wake. The only way we know, it seems, no matter how many times we see it done.”
As in The Snow Child, there is an element of the plot which can be explained by either science or magic, and that is true here too. There is also ample opportunity to explore the intersection, to recognize the wisdom and wonder of the natural world which surrounds these characters (and us, as readers).
“The others are drowsing in the sun. All is quiet along the hillside. The only livng creature spotted so far this side of the mountains is a raven that passed overhead & flew down towards the Tanana Valley.”
The raven carries particular significance in this story (which one might have guessed from the lovely cover illustration) and those who seek out the unknowable in fiction will find much to satisfy them in this element of the narrative.
Eowyn Ivey has a talent for seeing and imagining small wonders and To the Bright Edge of the World contains many of these.