Eowyn Ivey excels in telling stories that are rich in mythology and historical intrigue and that are set in Alaska where she’s lived since she was a young girl. Her first novel, “The Snow Child,” published in 2011 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, took place in the 1920s and was brilliant for its narrative complexities and its magical realism.
Her new, beautifully told second novel, “To the Bright Edge of the World,” takes readers to an earlier time and recreates a fictional tale of an actual expedition up Alaska’s Copper River, known today mostly for its prolific runs of wild salmon. Inspired by a report published in 1885 Ivey has transformed a exploration chronicle into a lusciously written series of accounts by the travelers and those related to this harrowing adventure.
This story is told mostly through the diaries of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, who leads the small exploration party up, what is called here, the Wolverine River, and his young bride, Sophie, who stayed behind at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, just above Portland, Oregon, and who taught herself photography to further her love of birds and the natural world.
Facing challenging terrain, raging waters, melting ice, deep canyons, terrible storms, a constant threat of starvation and many other strange dangers, Lieutenant Forrester and his two men, aided by a trapper and a scout they meet along the way and a host of native people, some helpful and others perplexing, venture northward up the Wolverine to the Tanana River, then to the Yukon River, and eventually out to St. Michael on the Bering Sea for the return journey to Portland.
Wrapped around these personal accounts are occasional letters, poems, documents, and dispatches from the past that provide an intriguing back story, along with unidentified poetic descriptions peculiarly combined with geographical and meteorological notations adding mystery to what unfolds. Throughout this journey there are many strange and inexplicable events that the explorers (and Sophie) experience. Even before they venture into the river basin Forrester writes in his diary: “I am left vaguely uneasy. As if I witnessed a bird flying underwater or a fish swimming across the sky.”
“To the Bright Edge of the World” is a page-turner, a fascinating story that is broad in its scope as it is compassionate in its message. Encompassing native lore and traditions, strong personalities of 19th century white explorers, early feminist ideals and aspirations, hard-lived lives and quick deaths, and even modern-day dilemmas of sexual politics, Eowyn Ivey has created a world that is dangerous and beautiful, worrisome and satisfying, all in a novel that readers will not soon forget.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in Portland, Oregon