|The perfect writing spot: Liberty Creek--along|
its decent into the Copper River
I had the fun coincidence of finishing this novel while traveling in the area in which it is set. At the time of this writing, I sit on the banks of Liberty Creek, along the falls that drop from a height of some 4,000 ft a total of 3,000 ft before surging into the mighty Copper River, almost visible below. Readers of Eowyn Ivey’s newest novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, will know the Copper by her fictional name: the Wolverine River. A few miles downstream of this point can be found the confluence of the Copper and the Chitna, know to Ivey’s readers as the Trail River.
To the Bright Edge of the World is a work of historical fiction which recreates the actual 1885 journey of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen and Private Fred Fickett, who traveled the length of the Copper River, a feat never before accomplished by a white man, before portaging overland to the previously explored Tanana River, which they followed to its joining with the then partially settled mighty Yukon and traveled that third river’s length to the village of St. Michael on the coast of Norton Sound. Since Ivey adds some magical realism elements to her story, she renames Lt. Allen Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester and Private Fickett becomes Ivey’s Sergeant Tillman.
|The confluence of the Chitna/"Trail" and the |
Just as she gives her characters her own names, so too does she rename the rivers and even some of the native tribes—her Midnooskis appear to be an Athabaskan people, the Ahtna. In my research I did find some reference to a real people called the Midnooski’s, but from the novel’s details, it seems that the Ahtna are the tribe to which she refers. I am unclear as to why she does this only some of the time. The first tribe that assists the fictional Lt. Col. Forrester is the factually named Eyak. My assumption is that she confers upon her Midnooskis the mythical characteristics which became her trademark style in her first novel, The Snow Child, and she either does not wish to offend the Ahtna by association or perhaps falsely portray their folklore.
|Our youngest daughter out blueberry picking|
I very much enjoyed The Snow Child, with its sense of whimsical wonder and the relatable pathos of a couple longing for a child. In To the Bright Edge of the World, Ivey absolutely out-writes that debut novel. Both novels bring the reader home to our Alaska, sharing early settlement in our state and giving a sense of our rich culture and the challenging daily lives of those who have built lives in the wild. Many of the things she writes about still hold true today. Devil’s club is still the bane of every Alaskan hiker, our mighty rivers still boom and crackle as they break up and begin their journey once again each spring, and just three days before reading of blueberry pie in the novel, my husband and daughter had picked fresh berries that I made into a pie. In this novel, as opposed to her debut, her history is richer and more varied, her characters deeper and more diverse, and her magical elements far more subtle.
Magic was present in her first novel, but it permeates every plot line of this sophomore effort. Just as in her first novel, those elements are so finely drafted that at times the reader is drawn into the realm of belief. If you have a serious dislike of magical realism, then you might be one of the few people who would not enjoy this novel. I would encourage even those people to give it a go, as the historical fiction elements are much stronger in this book and could carry through even a reticent reader.
In addition to the journey of exploration that is based on fact there are two other plot lines. All plot lines are shaped using journal entries, letters, drawings, maps, and photos. The two main threads involve the letters, dispatches, and private journal of Allen Forrester and the letters and journal of his wife, Sophie Forrester, left behind at the army post in Vancouver, Washington Territory. In addition, there is a further set of letters which pass between a great-grand-nephew of the Forresters and the curator of a small museum in a town along the Wolverine/Copper River. Writings of several other people weigh in as well: Forrester’s companions, Sgt. Tillman and Lt. Pruitt, and a pharmacist that Sophie corresponds with in search of assistance for her venture into the new technology of the taking and development of photographs. Through the insights of this variety of writers all elements, both mythical and factual, begin to emerge and take shape in a far more subtle fashion than any other form of narration could have achieved. These multiple first person narrators allow the story to expand and give the reader a feel for both the trials and grandeur of the Alaskan wilds and the life in a territorial post during the later years of the nineteenth century.
If you would like to see some of our family photos from the Copper River area, I have put together a second post (click here). There are photos of the Copper River Basin, the terrain that the explorers would have traversed, how the modern Ahta subsistence fish on the Copper River, and from a Wrangell St. Elias National Park exhibit on Lt. Allen's exploration of the river.