Little, Brown & Company, August 2, 2016.
The stark beauty of the Alaskan landscape is brought brilliantly to life in Ivey’s latest novel. As the 19th century comes to a close, exploration of the northern land is still going strong, and the vast setting is filled with mysteries. Colonel Allen Forrester is given the task of navigating Alaska’s remote Wolverine River with a small group of men – the American government wants to use the river to open up trade routes and access gold reserves, but the traditional people and spirits of Alaska may not allow him to succeed.
Forrester has recently been married to Sophie, but he must leave his young bride behind almost immediately, in order to explore the wilderness. Sophie soon realizes she is pregnant, and she begins to feel trapped in the Oregon army barracks – she craves adventure too, at a time when women were expected to stay safely at home. To compensate for her homebound life, she takes up hobbies such as birdwatching and photography, and she manages to expand her own horizons in surprising ways.
The story is told through the letters that pass between Forrester and Sophie, and they are supplemented by maps, illustrations and newspaper articles that bring a real sense of the time. Alternating with the story set in 1885 are sections set in the present day – these also take the form of letters, between Walter, a descendent of Forrester, and Joshua, an Alaskan museum curator. They are planning to exhibit Forrester and Sophie’s various historical ephemera in the tiny museum, to preserve a part of Alaskan history. Although their sections act as a framing device, they are just as strong as the other parts – they are fully developed characters in their own right.
Walter’s descriptions of the historical documents add context to Forrester’s adventures, which are often surreal. The intervention by white explorers led to the disappearance of the spiritual and even supernatural elements that were present in Forrester’s time, and he describes his surprising interactions with them in his letters. He speaks of shapeshifters, shamans, and crossing the boundaries between the living and the dead. However, even though Forrester’s discoveries were interesting in a larger way, it was Sophie’s domestic exploration of her small, intimate world that I enjoyed most.
This is a lengthy novel, but it held my attention for the most part by jumping through time, place and perspective. The beautiful setting and strong sense of place add a magical element to the characters’ lives, although they are deeply rooted in the earth. Considering the poetic title and stunning book cover, this novel definitely lived up to my expectations as a beautiful, complex and timeless story.
I received this book from Little, Brown & Company and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.