The promise of Alaska’s wilderness

Two novels offer perspectives on the allure of the last frontier.

 

As its nickname suggests, no part of the West remained unknown to non-Native Americans longer than the “Last Frontier.” Alaska is still the most sparsely populated state, its huge tracts of wild land offering both adventure and the chance for a fresh start. Two splendid new novels set in Alaska feature intrepid explorers: To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey’s historical tale modeled on Lt. Henry T. Allen’s 1885 journey into the state’s interior, and Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier, about a modern-day dentist who heads north with her children to escape midlife pressures in Ohio.

Ivey’s novel is told in part through the journal entries of the fictional Col. Allen Forrester, who leads an expedition up the Wolverine River into unexplored territory. Ivey weaves in the journal Forrester’s wife, Sophie, keeps while he’s away, along with their letters and a selection of photos, comical period postcards and excerpts from Victorian medical books. Some of these artifacts are historical, others invented, but all add to the sense of the book being a true archive of human lives.

While Allen’s entries are written in the matter-of-fact style typical of Victorian travel journals, Sophie is more lyrical and reflective: “When we are young, we consume the world in great gulps, and it consumes us, and everything is mysterious and alive and fills us with desire and wonder, fear, and guilt,” she writes. “With the passing of the years, however, those memories become distant and malleable, and we shape them into the stories of who we are.”

Eowyn Ivey was a bookseller in Alaska when her debut The Snow Child became a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Fans of that novel will be glad to see her continue to develop her own variety of Alaskan magical realism. A trapper believes his wife is the mountain fog in human form, shape-shifting geese women appear, and a trickster figure, an old man in a top hat and vest, toys with the explorers. Ivey expertly straddles the line between realism and fantasy — if you were starved, frozen and travel-weary, surrounded by nature at its most majestic and uncanny, you might see such visions, too.

Although Sophie is stuck at the Vancouver Barracks, her adventures are equally engaging, from when she discovers she’s pregnant and submits to Victorian medical practices to her reinvention of herself as a pioneering nature photographer.

A journal from Henry T. Allen’s 1885 expedition through Alaska up the Copper River, which partly inspired "To the Bright Edge of the World."
Fred Wildon Fickett papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage

Like Sophie, Josie is also a seeker. She’s the protagonist of acclaimed California novelist Eggers’ hilarious, weird, probing and joyful Heroes of the Frontier, which opens as Josie is preparing to drive from Ohio to Alaska in a rented motorhome. The weak, unemployed father of her children has left her; a malpractice lawsuit has destroyed her dental practice; she’s mourning the loss of a young friend in Afghanistan; and she’s still trying to make sense of her own disordered childhood. She’s accompanied by her children, Paul, age 8, “a gentle, slow-moving boy who was far more reasonable and kind and wise than his mother,” and Ana, her wild 5-year-old, who is “a constant threat to the social contract.”

Why has Josie chosen Alaska? Eggers writes, “Alaska was at once the same country but another country, was almost Russia, was almost oblivion, and if Josie left her phone and used only cash — she’d brought three thousand dollars in the kind of velvet bag meant to hold gold coins or magic beans — she was untraceable, untrackable.”

Josie has vague plans to visit a woman in Homer she considers a sister, but largely follows picaresque whims: The family gets invited to a cruise ship’s magic show, encounters a friendly clan of gun enthusiasts, outruns enormous forest fires and squats in an empty cabin or two.

Along the way, Josie offers penetrating and hysterical insights into contemporary life, from the pressure to be a perfect parent (“No one seemed to work; everyone … found time to be at every one of the three or four hundred yearly events at school”), to modern technology (“The easiest way to witness the stupidity and misplaced hopes of all humanity is to watch, for twenty minutes, a human using a leaf blower”) and how Americans struggle to live peaceably among others armed to the teeth: “Somehow she had to trust that they would use their bullets on targets, not on her family, that nonsensical trust seeming to be the core of life in America.”

Though these novels share an Alaskan setting, they couldn’t be more different in terms of structure, style, tone and time period. But it’s clear their authors are motivated by a similar insight: how a confrontation with a big, wild, mysterious place can free people from old patterns, prove them to be stronger than they ever imagined, and set them on a course toward a more honest and fulfilling life.

To The Bright Edge of the World
Eowyn Ivey
417 pages, hardcover: $26.
Little Brown: 2016.

Heroes of the Frontier
Dave Eggers
385 pages, hardcover: $28.95.
Alfred A. Knopf: 2016.

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and McSweeney’s.