To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Recommended: yes indeed
For an exploration of Alaskan wilderness, for a story that feels real and immediate, for a journey with so many others that ties you into a larger part of history, for a fabulous example of how multimedia can create a powerful effect
Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.
For Forrester, the decision to accept this mission is even more difficult, as he is only recently married to Sophie, the wife he had perhaps never expected to find. Sophie is pregnant with their first child, and does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband embarks upon the journey of a lifetime. She has genuine cause to worry about her pregnancy, and it is with deep uncertainty about what their future holds that she and her husband part.
I bought a used copy of this book, because I like stories that have the stories of people on them as well as in them. The well-creased spine of my new-old copy made me think I had chosen well in this particular story, and I was not disappointed.
I was first surprised at how heavy the book is, physically. Despite it’s average length and being a paperback copy, it was significantly heavier than other books of similar style and size that I had. Now that I’ve finished the book, that feels strangely appropriate. I’m still in that world enough to feel that maybe the man who flies on black wings has something to do with it.
Mystical is perhaps the best word to describe my experience of reading this. The whole way through, I wondered, is this a true story? Or is this fiction? Since I was genuinely unsure where the line between “inspired by” and “pure fantasy” was, I was all the more enraptured by the unexplainable moments within it. It made me want to believe so much of this, and made me feel a slight desperation, just beneath my consciousness, to dive into the wilds of Alaska.
The contrast between Allen and Sophie’s experiences may turn some people off, as the pivot from Allen’s life-threatening and unexplored dramas to Sophie’s mundane drudgery of tea with gossipy ladies can feel quite cruel at times. To rip us away from Allen, right in the throes of the newest crisis, to hear about Sophie’s pregnancy or a new bird she saw… well, it can be somewhat lackluster. For that, I admit I did struggle at times to feel immersed in the story. Sophie does have some interesting insights and personal revelations, but she is essentially the character study of the story, while Allen’s journals are the driving side of the plot.
What lent this story so much credibility and immediacy were the real newspaper articles, the real photographs, the real medical diagrams that were inserted throughout the book for emphasis. I love a multigenre story told through different writing styles, and this was a marvelous example of how well it can be done. Ultimately, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that I had no idea at any point of what might happen next, and I certainly expect this to linger. I will be unsurprised if a raven enters my dreams tonight in a dusky fog.