Wednesday, March 1, 2017

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)

In the 1800s, the Wolverine River in Alaska was still uncharted and impassible. Colonel Allen Forrester is tasked with navigating the Wolverine with a very small group of men, in hopes of making Alaska more accessible for mining. At their small cabin in a military barracks in Washington, he leaves behind his new wife Sophie, a budding naturalist who is pregnant with their first child. The story is told primarily through journal entries, moving back and forth between Allen and Sophie. In another layer to the story, a present-day elderly man named Walt donates some artifacts belonging to Allen and Sophie to a small museum in Alaska, prompting letters between himself and a young man named Josh, who is the museum caretaker.

The basic setup reminds me a lot of Above All Things by Tanis Rideout, the dual story of George Mallory's Everest expedition and the day-to-day life of his wife waiting at home with their children. But the similarities end there. Allen's story is one of exploration and hardship in an extreme climate, but his group has a lot of contact with indigenous people and they witness some extraordinary sights they cannot explain. Meanwhile, Sophie has a story all of her own. While she misses Allen deeply, she is having some adventures of her own. Enthralled with birds, she has been keeping a field journal for quite some time, but she doesn't feel like her drawings do them justice. She sets out to learn photography, and becomes completely engrossed in her new passion. It is, of course, not seemly for a young woman to turn her pantry into a darkroom, leaving all her flour and other supplies out on a table in plain sight, but it is clear that Sophie is unlike other young women.

Indeed, she had been planning to accompany Allen on the first, and less dangerous, leg of his journey. But when she learned she was pregnant, her doctor insisted she stay behind. He was an insufferably paternalistic man who chose to conceal facts of her own health from her because women are too delicate to handle anything the least bit upsetting. Sophie has already endured at least one horrific episode on her life, which we learn later on in the book, so she is much stronger than many would assume. Still, she must endure the gossip of local ladies who disapprove of her new hobby and like to question her, "What would Allen think?" Rightly, she feels Allen would be fully supportive of her interest in photography, because theirs is a love based on really understanding what is unique about each other.

 Their relationship may have been my favorite aspect of this story, and I'm sorry that they were separated throughout most of it. I loved all of Sophie's story though, and the way she navigated her social circle and ignored their disapproval in favor of following her own path. Allen's story of exploration in Alaska was also good, of course, though I'm not enraptured enough by indigenous tales of magical phenomena to be as interested in that part. But that's just my own preference. It was still a good story all around.

Ivey is also the author of The Snow Child, which I absolutely loved. It's hard to compare the two since they're pretty different stories and I read them several years apart, but I think I loved her first book best. Still, To the Bright Edge of the World was captivating and beautifully written and you shouldn't miss it if you enjoyed The Snow Child. I know I'll be looking forward to whatever she writes next.

No comments: