Set again in the Alaskan landscape that she bought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivey’s new novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret.
Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.
For Forrester, the decision to accept this mission is even more difficult, as he is only recently married to Sophie, the wife he had perhaps never expected to find. Sophie is pregnant with their first child, and does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband embarks upon the journey of a lifetime. She has genuine cause to worry about her pregnancy, and it is with deep uncertainty about what their future holds that she and her husband part.
A story shot through with a darker but potent strand of the magic that illuminated THE SNOW CHILD, and with the sweep and insight that characterised Rose Tremain’s The Colour, this new novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Eowyn Ivey singles her out as a major literary talent.
I’m a bit of an Alaska geek, and one of the ways that comes out is that I’m inordinately excited whenever great new fiction set in Alaska appears on the horizon. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on a copy of Eowyn Ivey’s newest book — I think I snagged the very first copy that arrived at my local library!
To the Bright Edge of the World is a novel told in letters and other first-person written documents, with occasional archival pieces such as newspaper clippings, photos, and maps mixed in as well. The main writings in this novel are journal entries by Colonel Allen Forrester and Sophie Forrester.
Allen is leading a small team of men up the dangerous and uncharted Wolverine River, with the goal of finding a passage through to the Yukon River. Previous expeditions have met disaster along the way and have been forced to abandon the attempt. Sophie is dismayed at the prospect of being left behind in the army barracks — she’d originally intended to journey to the starting point of the expedition with Allen, but the unexpected news of her pregnancy forces her to abandon that plan.
Sophie is a bright, energetic young woman who has no interest in or patience for the small, suffocating social circle of officers’ wives that seems to be her expected occupation while Allen is away. Sophie is fascinated by the natural world, and almost accidentally discovers an interest in photography. After a tragedy leaves her at loose ends, she purchases a camera, converts a room in her quarters into a dark room, and sets out to capture her concept of light through the photography of the wild birds in the area, with the elusive hummingbird as her true target.
Meanwhile, Allen’s expedition is beset by challenges and hardships at every turn, from starvation to injury to the delicate task of asking the local tribes for assistance without being seen as enemies. Through it all, Allen and Sophie record their thoughts, hopes, and emotions, as well as their daily activities, in their journals. The picture that emerges is of two highly intelligent people who, despite seeming an odd match, are truly suited to each other in a way that’s rare and beautiful.
The writing in To the Bright Edge of the World is lovely. The author captures the different writing styles and voices of the different characters, giving a unique flavor to the documents each writes. The descriptions of the landscapes and natural wonders is powerful, as are the thoughts and reflections on what it means to love another person, heart and soul.
There is yet another element to the book, which is the sense of the unexplained and magical that lives in the natural world. As Allen’s small team progresses, they encounter things they cannot explain, including an Old Man who also appears to be a raven, who follows them along their path — either to hurt or to help, they can’t be quite sure. Other magical, otherworldly elements come into play, and it’s interesting to note that while Allen records them all in his journals, the official reports of the expedition most certainly do not include these stories and observations.
Meanwhile, the framing device of the novel is a series of letters between an old man, a great-nephew of Colonel Forrester, and the curator of a small Alaskan musuem, as they get to know one another and form an odd friendship as they bond over the treasure trove of documents and artifacts from the family attic — the documents that make up the bulk of the novel.
While I loved the characters, the setting, and the imagery, I do have some minor quibbles. My biggest quibble is the limiting effect of telling a story through documents rather than a direct narrative. While this gives us insight into the characters’ thoughts, it’s by necessity not the most immediate way of depicting the events. Instead of experiencing the most dramatic moments as if we were there, we’re held at arms’ length by reading about the events as the narrators remember and record them. The epistolary approach works in terms of letting us inside the characters’ heads, but it’s a distancing tool when it comes to living and breathing big adventures as they happen.
Likewise, because of the epistolary approach, the supporting characters are known only by the main characters’ observations. I would have liked to know more about what makes certain characters tick, especially the soldiers in Allen’s company and the young native woman who accompanies them, but I felt that we never truly get beyond their outward appearances. (Of course, this is actually rather true to life — how do we get to know anyone, except by what they show us? It’s only in books that we get to know another person’s innermost thoughts.)
I question too the inclusion of the scattered photos, drawings, etc that pop up throughout the book. It felt to me as if they were included rather haphazardly — if the decision was made to augment the story with these types of things, then there should have been more. I actually love seeing the old photos (as if they were truly the products of the fictional characters in the story), but I would have liked a stronger commitment to this approach. Either go for it, or leave them out!
The quibble about the writing style is what keeps this from being a five-star read for me, but overall, I do think the book is a wonderful achievement and hope that it will be widely read and appreciated. Sophie is a remarkable woman, well ahead of her time, and I admired her pioneering spirit and commitment to her dreams, and absolutely love how she and Allen support each other and refuse to be boxed in by the traditional ideas of a proper marriage at that time.
To the Bright Edge of the World is a beautifully written historical novel with well-developed characters and an unforgettable setting. If you enjoy historical fiction or even just have a hankering for Alaska, check it out.
Title: To the Bright Edge of the World
Author: Eowyn Ivey
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction