clytemenstra: (Lots of books)
[personal profile] clytemenstra
That is the excitement. We catch only glimpses, a burst of movement, a flap of wings, yet it is life itself beating at shadow's edge. It is the unfolding of potential; all of what we might experience and see and learn awaits us.

This is a phenomenal book - the type of book that immediately made me want to flip to the start and read all over again. Set in Alaska at the tail end of the 1880s, its a story of discovery. Lt Colonel Allen Forrester, and his young teacher wife Sophie, are in Vancouver when he sets off on an expedition to discover the wilds of Alaska. The tortured history of America's greatest state is laid bare in this - previously owned by Russia, then sold to the USA, the indigenous tribes faced humiliation when "the white man" came.

Framed in modern times, by letters sent by an elderly relative of the Forresters, to a young museum curator living in Alpine, Alaska, the novel takes the form of diary entries by both Allen and Sophie, letters between Walt and Josh, and interspersing texts that I thought were from one other character, but having read it, I now think its another. Both the Forresters have their own journeys to make. As Allen copes with the unforgiving harshness of Alaska's beauty, leading him and his men to find the Indian villages, treacherous lakes, and, astonishingly, a baby. Meanwhile, Sophie grapples with two lots of grief - one concerning her father, the other her child. Through this she discovers photography, and at this point the narrative veers into an interesting look at the strict roles for women in the late 1880s. There is also the bitchy backbiting of the other officers' wives to contend with. In the same way Allen forms bonds with Pruitt and Tillman, his two accompanying soldiers, so Sophie becomes friends with her Irish house-girl, Charlotte, and Evelyn.

There is a sense of grief about this novel. Every character reads as though burdened with secrets, and equally, all are fully formed. In the depiction of Josh, an idealistic young man shines through, whereas Walt is an elderly man, tired of life, but sparked into life by the correspondence of someone younger. The mythology of the native tribes pervades this book, from the use of Shamans to a raven and a silver comb. The stories of goose-women and a woman who married a man who turned into an otter.

Absolutely wonderful. Read it.
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