I have to tell you, I was really excited when I realized my reading tour of the US would take me to Alaska in winter. I love cozying up with icy books when it is cold outside – I reread The Shipping News nearly every winter – and Alaska literature has not disappointed. I’ve gone back and forth between shivering, swearing “I’m reading a warm book after this!” and succumbing to the wild brutality of Alaskan winter, my thirst for its realness and its close-to-the-earthness unquenchable. Reading books populated with marten and wolverine, bear and fox, glaciers and tundra, I’m learning a new vocabulary: breakup (aka Spring, when the ice breaks up and avalanches downstream), ptarmigan (grouse), and babiche (rawhide strips used for cording, as in making snowshoes). I am scribbling descriptions of ice and snow and the piercing cold because the frosty words paint pictures of a place that is exotic, full of a wonder and wildness I will never experience here in Virginia.
While my Alabama reads dealt with social themes – racism, community, and doing the right thing – my Alaska reads contend with themes of wilderness, survival, legend, and the strong pull of the natural world. The landscape is as much a character in each book as the humans are, and I was pleased to find books set not only in isolation in the far north of Alaska and inland on a homestead, but also one set in more populated areas, on the raw coast. I’m a sucker for coasts.
Novel: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey, raised in Alaska
Setting: 1920s Alaska homestead
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer Prize finalist
I didn’t think I liked magical realism, but it turns out I just hadn’t found the right book to pull me in, ground me in a reality, then sprinkle magic in a way that is wondrous and enchanting, and leaves you puzzling throughout – is it magic or is it real? The Snow Child was this book for me.
Set in the wilderness of 1920s interior Alaska on the Wolverine River, The Snow Child is the story of a aging couple who have moved west from Pennsylvania to homestead in Alaska in an effort to escape the emptiness left by their stillborn child. A two hour horse ride to the nearest “town” and then a train ride away from Anchorage, Mabel and Jack become isolated even from each other, grieving while they labor separately to make workable land from wilderness. One night, they succumb to the magic of a snowfall, and in laughter and joy, they build a child from snow. The next morning, the snow figure is gone, and a wildling girl appears in the forest.
The Snow Child chronicles the growing affection between Faina (the wildling) and the elderly couple, who over the years grow to think of her as their own, though she comes and goes without notice, and though they live with opposing stories of her flesh-and-blood father who Jack buried and the idea that Faina is a snow maiden of their creation, as Mabel read about in a Russian Fairy Tale. A tale that never ends well.
The magic in this book isn’t just the obvious fairy tale quality of it. The magic is in the crystalline descriptions of Alaska in winter. Author Eowyn Ivey may not be Eskimo, but I would argue she has a thousand words for snow. Her descriptions are like snowflakes on the tongue – delicate, feathery crystals that sting in their loveliness:
“The December days had a certain luminosity and sparkle, like frost on bare branches, alight in the morning just before it melts.”
“Dawn broke silver over the snowdrifts and spruce trees.”
“The child was dusted in crystals of ice, as if she had just walked through a snowstorm or spent a brilliantly cold night outdoors.”
“The cranberries were tiny red rubies against the white snow.”
“Around the curve the valley opened up, and in the distance spires of blue ice glowed.”
This is a biting and beautiful book of love: love for neighbors, of husband and wife, for children, and love for the wild pull of the land, the forest, the snow, and the wilderness. It is one I will come back to when I want the magic of winter.
For more posts about The Snow Child, please see It was November, and I was afraid.
Novel: Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival
Author: Velma Wallis, Athabascan Indian, born 1960 in a remote village near Fort Yukon, AK
Setting: The tundra of northeastern Alaska
Categories: Native American literature
Two Old Women, a tale of Athabascan Indians written by Velma Wallis, a native Athabascan author, takes place north of the Arctic Circle in the interior of Alaska. It tells a tribal legend passed orally to Wallis by her mother, of two elders who were abandoned one lean and brutal winter by their tribe.
“That day the women went back in time to recall the skills and knowledge they had been taught from early childhood. They began by making snowshoes.”
At the time they were abandoned, the old women depended on the youth of the tribe to care for them. Because of this dependence, with The People on the brink of starvation, the Chief determined the women were holding the tribe back, threatening the survival of the many for the demands of the few, and he left them to die, old, crippled, and alone on the open tundra. The two women could barely walk, even with canes, when they were left behind, but the taste for survival was sharp in their mouths, and they gathered their strength and elder-wisdom to stay alive. They made snowshoes from babiche a grandson had left them, and used the shoes to trek to a safe winter-over spot; they caught rabbits in snares; they slept in snow pits they dug with gnarled hands and lined with spruce boughs for bedding.
What I love about this story, aside from a portrayal of the very real struggle for survival for indiginous people living without permanant shelter – nomads north of the Arctic Circle – was the focus it places on elders. The elders in our communities have seen much more than the youth have. They know more, they have lived more, they are wiser. It is easy for young ones, in their arrogance and vigor, to toss the old aside, thinking they are outdated, their knowledge obsolete, their presence a hindrance holding the young ones back rather than a source of wisdom that could propel them forward. Wisdom that could nourish and equip them for the unknown that lies ahead.
I imagine this story would be powerful as an audiobook, told with native Athabaskan inflection and in its traditional, oral story form.
Novel: The Woman Who Married a Bear: An Alaskan Mystery
Author: John Straley, resident of Sitka, Alaska since 1977
Setting: contemporary Sitka, Alaska
Categories: Mystery, crime fiction
How can I resist a novel that leads with a haiku?
My head is a cup left out
on a stormy autumn night;
half full of water, and a spider.
The fact is, I can’t. Especially when the novel is a murder mystery set in October in the port town of Sitka, off the raw southeastern coast of Alaska. Unlike the previous Alaska books I read, which were set in isolation in the interior of the state, Staley’s novel portrays peopled coastal regions in Alaska: cities with pubs and coffee shops, police departments and wharfs. Eskimos and other natives populate scenes in diners, bars, and airplanes, always reminding the reader you’re in Alaska.
Since it’s a mystery novel, I won’t go too much into the plot, except that it involves a murder (duh), Tinglit Indian legend, and Cecil Young, an alcoholic private investigator with a penchant for poetic thought
“Her skin was as white as a sea anemone, and as soft as the pool of warm air you pass through while rowing across the bay.”
and a knack for nailing scenes
“As the bottle got lighter our gestures became wilder, our eyes widened and we imagined were were expanding into our own stories.”
“The landscape seemed to press in and make Juneau seem like a smaller, less sophisticated town than it really was.”
“The water boiled with little silvery fish dense on the surface like a trillion dollars in quarters spilling onto a sidewalk… There was a massive exploding breath and the damp smell of fish and tideflat… Whale. Humpback whale, feeding on herring.”
I read this as winter descended on Blacksburg, Virginia, and it was a perfect curl-up-on-the-couch cozy mystery read. The language in this book is beautiful, enough so that I was intrigued by a mystery writer who wrote so poetically, and I discovered that Straley has studied poetry and was the Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2006 to 2008.
The Woman Who Married a Bear is the first in a series of Cecil Young mysteries.
For further reading in Alaska
Books I’ve read and recommend:
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner (For more on Ordinary Wolves, please see Favorite Quotes from Alaska Literature or click the title for my Goodreads review.)
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (nonfiction)
Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
The Raven’s Gift by Don Reardon
Two in the Far North by Margaret E. and Olaus Johan Murie (nonfiction)
Drop City by T.C. Boyle
The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox (nonfiction)
Journey to a Dream by Mary Lovel (nonfiction)
My Name is Not Easy by Debbie Dahl Edwardson
Don’t Use a Chainsaw in the Kitchen by Rosalyn Stowell
In the summer of 2013, my parents packed up their RV and took the adventure of their lifetime: the two of them and their yellow lab, Blondie, drove from Georgia to Alaska and back again. Mom wrote and photographed their journey on her blog, Wandering Dawgs.
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.