I’m a little obsessed with anything Alaska related, which is pretty weird because unfortunately I haven’t had the time to visit Alaska yet. It’s definitely up towards the top of my bucket list. I’m probably so fascinated by Alaska because I’m by nature a lover of cold weather – which is kind of unfortunate since I live in sunny California. There’s something that attracts me too in the wilderness of Alaska – how, certainly compared to other U.S. states and to Los Angeles, where I live, it’s much less tamed by human development.
I’m an entertainment researcher and I therefore watch a ton of TV content for work. Many of my favorite ‘reality’ shows are set in Alaska. These shows have nothing to do with other reality fare like The Kardashians or Real Housewives. They typically show people living in close contact with nature and battling the wild Alaskan frontier. Some examples of my favorite TV shows set in Alaska are Deadliest Catch, Dr. Oakley Yukon Vet, Alaska: The Last Frontier and Alaska: State Troopers. Part of me wants to leave civilization behind and learn how to fish my own salmon and subsist on the land (it’s my phobia of insects and my love of creature comforts that stops me).
Below are my reviews of Eowyn Ivey’s two novels set in beautiful Alaska. It’s incredibly impressive that Ivey’s debut novel – The Snow Child – received as many critical accolades as it did, even being picked as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Not many debut novelists have that kind of success with their first work, and I can assure you that it’s well deserved. Ivey’s first two novels are similar in their setting and in that they both include magical elements, but they also differ significantly in plot and tone. I encourage you to read them both to develop your own appreciation for their differences and for Ivey’s masterful writing.
To The Bright Edge Of The World by Eowyn Ivey
Published: August 11th, 2016
This historical fiction novel begins in the winter of 1885, when Colonel Allen Forrester embarks on an expedition with a small group of men to explore the Wolverine River and follow it up into uncharted Alaska Territory. He leaves behind his wife Sophie – a very independent and strong-minded woman who however is young and newly pregnant. Through Allen and Sophie’s journal entries, their letters to each other, and additional accounts, articles and artifacts from secondary characters, Ivey follows Colonel Forrester’s harrowing trip into the Alaskan frontier while recounting the parallel struggles and heartbreak that his wife Sophie has to experience alone in their Vancouver Barracks lodgings.
What I Liked
I loved the format of the novel – the way in which the story was told through the personal journal entries of the characters, alternating narrative voices and also providing images of artifacts and locations interspersed throughout the novel. It really made me feel that I was a historical researcher, using primary sources to uncover Colonel Forrester’s incredible journey myself. At the same time, the fact that journal entries were included allowed the characters to reveal their inner thoughts and aspects of their experiences that they may not have been revealed in dialogue with others. It added a more personal and emotional dimension to the story.
I really appreciated that Sophie’s character was more complex than just some wimpy wife left at home by the brave Colonel to tend to the cleaning and cooking in his absence. She’s far from domestic and she’s essentially a feminist character, who luckily for her has a very supportive husband who treats her as an equal. When Sophie finds out she’s pregnant and that she won’t be able to accompany her husband on the first leg of his trip into Alaska, she’s extremely disappointed as she has her own taste for adventure and is very outdoorsy herself. Instead of showing her only pining for her husband in his absence, Ivey has her pick up photography as a hobby and eventual career, at a time when photography was a primarily male pursuit.
I also really liked how Ivey interwove magical elements into the plot of the novel. There is magic in The Snow Child obviously, but in To The Bright Edge Of The World the magical elements were even more intricately woven into the native culture and wild natural setting of Alaska. The Alaskan native men and women that Forster and his companions encounter throughout their travels are so tied to the nature around them that they have physical animal attributes and seem to be able to turn into animals at will. There is a figure similar to that of a medicine man who can turn into a raven and fly, and which to me represented the duplicitous spirit of Alaska itself – mostly harsh and unhelpful but with an unexpected bountiful and caring side to it as well.
What I Didn’t Like
I absolutely loved the novel, but if I had to find an element that didn’t work as well for me as some of the other aspects of the book, it would have to be the sections dedicated to Colonel Allen Forrester’s descendant Walt Forrester. Walt is the one who brings Colonel Forrester and Sophie’s story to the attention of the public, by donating their journals, letters and artifacts to a museum located near the Wolverine River. Ivey includes letters between Walt and volunteer museum curator Joshua Sloan as part of the narrative, and though the letters were not unpleasant to read I felt that they added less to the novel than the actual journals and letters of the main characters themselves.
This book covers two adventures – that of Colonel Forrester as he explores the Alaska frontier, and that of his wife Sophie as she experiences loss and loneliness, but also equal resilience and determination at home without him. An amazing read for lovers of historical fiction and adventure, but also unexpectedly the story of a truly loving romance.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Published: November 6th, 2012
The Snow Child is set in the 1920s when Jack and Mabel, a married couple from the East Coast, decide to move to Alaska to remake their lives. The beginning of their homesteading adventure is far from ideal. Jack finds the farming work required for their subsistence to be harder than he imagined and perhaps too difficult considering his advancing age. Because he doesn’t allow Mabel to help him in the farming, Mabel feels left out and isolated, home alone with no one to talk to all day. As their relationship begins to suffer and they grow apart, a child appears out of nowhere in their lives, seemingly having materialized from the snow that surrounds them itself. Her name is Faina and Mabel and Jack begin to think of her and treat her as their own daughter. But Faina is a creature of the woods and of the Alaskan wilderness, and Jack and Mabel’s love may not be sufficient to keep her with them.
What I Liked
From the beginning I felt that the character of Faina, the mystical Snow Child of the book’s title, represented the spirit of Alaska, in a similar way to the shaman/raven in To The Bright Edge Of The World. I had the chance to message with Eowyn Ivey on Twitter about the girl’s name, and she told me that the name has Russian origins, meaning Crown. I was intrigued by the naming of the character, though, because in italian Faina means wild weasel or martin.
I felt that Faina truly embodied the spirit of the Alaskan woods, rewarding self-sufficiency and punishing those who seek to tame the Alaskan landscape beyond what is legitimate and right. Faina was not able to live comfortably indoors like Jack and Mabel, stifled by the heat. The more Jack and Mabel tried to tame and civilize Faina, the more she resisted and flitted out of their grasp, just like Alaska itself.
I also sympathized and identified with Mabel, even though she’s a bit older than me. I’ve often fantasized about what it would be like to move from the city I live in into a barren landscape, trying to establish a subsistence lifestyle for myself. When I’m being more realistic in my musings, I have to admit that such an adventure would include many moments of boredom and loneliness very much like the ones Mabel experienced. Mabel is also an avid reader, so I related to her in that as well.
Ultimately, The Snow Child was a series of love stories – between Mable and Jack, between the couple and Faina, and between Faina and the man she comes to fall in love with, as well as between all the characters and the Alaskan wilderness. The story is beautifully written, with gorgeous descriptions of snow, of morning and evening light, and of magical elements in nature that are also present in To The Bright Edge Of The World.
What I Didn’t Like
Again, this is a novel I truly loved, so it’s not easy to come up with something I didn’t like. A few times during the novel I wished that Mabel was portrayed as being a bit more reasonable or quick to understand Faina’s need to be outside and not be coddled or kept indoors. It seemed that Mabel was a bit slower than would have made sense to pick up on the issue, even considering her reticence to allow Faina out of her sight.
Beautifully written – a fairytale for adults full of the hardship and difficulties of everyday life, but also full of magic, the beauty of nature and the resilience of the human spirit.
About The Author (from her website)
Eowyn (pronounced A-o-win) LeMay Ivey was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters. She worked for nearly a decade as a bookseller at independent Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, and prior to that as a reporter for the local newspaper, The Frontiersman.
Her new novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was released August 2 2016. Her debut novel, The Snow Child, was a New York Times bestseller published in more than 25 languages. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a UK National Book Award winner, an Indies Choice award for debut fiction, and a PNBA Book Award winner
Eowyn’s essays and short fiction have appeared in London’s Observer Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Sunday Express Magazine, Woman & Home Magazine, the anthology Cold Flashes, the North Pacific Rim literary journal Cirque, FiveChapters, and Alaska Magazine.
Trigger Warning (including a slight spoiler)
Both To The Bright Edge Of The World and The Snow Child have plots that include miscarriages that are more or less integral to the story. If you would prefer to not read stories including this type of plot element, skip the novels.
Have you read Eowyn Ivey’s Novels? Share what you thought in the comments.
Please note this post includes affiliate links from Book Depository and I received a review copy of To The Bright Edge Of The World through Net Galley (all opinions are my own).