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Interior Landscapes: A review of The City Beneath the Snow

 

The City Beneath the Snow: Stories
Marjorie Kowalski Cole
276 pages, hardcover: $ 22.95.
University of Alaska Press, 2012.

With her Bellwether Prize-winning novel Correcting the Landscape -- a tale of journalism and urban development -- Marjorie Kowalski Cole put Fairbanks, Alaska, on the literary map. Her posthumously published story collection The City Beneath the Snow again brings to life the people of that outpost in the boreal forest, besieged by winter for six months of the year.

Recognizing the complicated reality behind the myth of The Last Frontier, many of Cole's stories focus on those for whom, in the Lower 48, "land ran out too soon" -- the restless, displaced and bereaved, those who keep seeking second chances: "It's looking at this house no different than a dozen others on this street, and wanting to start over again with a girl and a cabin."

In this subarctic melting pot, fish processors mingle with geography teachers, bush pilots with social workers. Engineers take art classes, and women "doing a man's work" still look good in loose sweaters and snow pants. Love blossoms at 40 below but remains brittle where "oil money eroded all the usual connections" between people. Skeptical readers could accuse Cole of stereotyping, but even her secessionist junkyard owner, who attacks the mayor at a Golden Days Parade -- with a Viking mace, no less -- rings eerily true. While this is not the glossy Alaska of tourist brochures, Nature, like an omniscient narrator, pervades every page. At times, it takes center stage, a character itself, as in "Aurora Borealis," in which a hollowed-out newcomer turns to the lights for "a life-giving routine." That story's epigram -- "The sky ever-present, even in darkness beneath the skin" -- beautifully sums up the entire collection.

A Fairbanks resident for more than 40 years, Cole gets the details just right, from the urethane-sprayed Quonset home complete with chicken yard to the aerobatics of dumpster-diving ravens. She perfectly captures the vibe of laid-back, sometimes throwback, Interior Alaska. "This is a different place," one protagonist says. "Not as tense as California. It's hard to live here but people seem to have a good time with less." Less can be more, and Cole's sketches succeed at depicting this "landlocked land" and its breed where many a more ambitious novel has failed.