I can’t say that the exploration of Alaska during the late nineteenth century was a plot line that grabbed my attention, but because I adored Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, I could not wait to get my hands on this, her second novel.
Perhaps you remember that the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. There was much unknown about the place, so naturally the U.S. sent military personnel out to see what could be found there. And thus we meet U.S. Army Colonel Allen Forrester and his small band of men as they begin their expedition into the Wolverine River valley in 1885.
Forrester keeps a journal of his travels so that should he not return, his newly pregnant wife Sophie will know at least most of what he went through. They have not been married long and it is hard to be separated.
Back at the Vancouver Barracks in Washington territory, Sophie keeps a diary of days apart from her husband. Mixed in with these entries are illustrations, photographs and drawings of all sorts, as well as modern day letters between the Colonel’s great nephew and a museum curator in Alaska.
Greatly dependent on the native tribes’ knowledge and guidance, Forrester and his men are mystified by their seemingly supernatural practices and beliefs. Challenged by the snow and ice, the loss and lack of foodstuffs, torturous rocky climbs and bodily injuries, often it is the native people who save the lives of the military men. Lots of suspense herein!
But I have to admit that for me, Sophie Forrester’s story was the heartfelt stuff that gave this novel its richness.
A bird watcher, Sophie loves to roam the wilderness near the barracks. She tries her hand at sketching birds, but feels dissatisfied with her efforts. The she gets her hands on a book about the new art of photography. Soon she manages to acquire a camera, chemicals and plates. Before too long, Sophie creates a tented structure to use as a blind, and from behind its folds, aims her camera at her beloved birds in their nests and in flight.
But all is not fun and games for Sophie; she worries about her husband so very far away in an unknown territory. Letters reach her only rarely and we feel the anguish both wife and husband must suffer through. Thank goodness Sophie has a servant girl who helps the time pass.
The other military wives at the barracks find Sophie odd. Women photographers were unheard of but Sophie begins to succeed in capturing light and motion. I was delighted by this turn of events.
So much happens during this one spring and summer of 1885, the novel has an epic quality. Rhythmic in its perambulations between the various journal and diary entries, letters and clippings, given these methods of telling the story, somehow Ivey makes it all come alive. To the Bright Edge of the World is historical fiction well worth the snow glare! Venture out to its chilling, thrilling edge.
KEDDY ANN OUTLAW
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.