Like Ivey’s previous book, The Snow Child, her newest is also a magical tale centered around a love story in a land of biting but exquisitely beautiful cold. In fact, this book is set on the same fictional Wolverine River as The Snow Child, but a bit earlier, in 1885, during the early years of exploration of Alaska by the United States subsequent to its purchase from Russia in 1867.
Much of the story is told in excerpts of the diary of (fictional) Lieutenant-Colonel Allen Forrester, who was authorized by the U.S. Government to lead a reconnaissance into Alaska traveling up the Wolverine River. His observations are alternated with other “excerpts” of reports, letters, pictures, his wife Sophie’s diary, and contemporary correspondence between Forrester’s great-nephew Walter and Joshua Sloan, the Exhibits Curator of the Alpine, Alaska Historical Museum.
A good deal of the Colonel’s tale concerns his astonishment and skepticism over seemingly mythological aspects to the people and terrain he encounters. As Walter writes to Josh:
“ . . .some who have read these pages write off the odder occurrences as hallucinations…
‘I’ve chosen to consider another possibility – that he described what he saw with his own two eyes. It takes a kind of arrogance to think everything in the world can be measured and weighed with our scientific instruments.’
‘I’m not saying that other world is gone, because I’m not convinced it is. Maybe we just don’t have the eyes for it anymore.’”
Sophie is a photographer, and her fascination with light and the loveliness of images that change in the light is mirrored in her husband’s reflections on the landscape:
“Despite our restless & bored state, we are not untouched by the spectacularity of our surroundings. This land has a vast & cold beauty. Sun everywhere glints off blue sea, ice, snow. The refraction of light is as sharp as the cry of the sea birds overhead.”
Their efforts to maintain their relationship over time and space is a struggle, as they also do battle with the restrictions of their harsh environments. But they both find a way to overcome what is besetting them, and to reach the endings they each ardently desire.
Evaluation: This is another fine story from this talented author. From the evocative literary snapshots of those northern lands and natives, to the relationship among the explorers and those they encounter along the way, to the tenderness and respect between Allen and Sophie, and even to the growing friendship between Walt and Josh – this lovely novel surprised and delighted me. I also appreciated the way Ivey wove epistemological differences into the story. The “mixed media” approach was done very well too, without the author’s going overboard with the “cutesiness” of the concept.
Excellent book, highly recommended!
Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2016