To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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Reviewed by Annabel

To the Bright Edge of the World Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, was my favourite book of 2012; I awaited her second with great anticipation. To the Bright Edge of the World is another tale of the Alaskan frontier, which is where Ivey is from and still lives. However, despite the shared location and similar time period, it is completely different in style.

Set 35 earlier, the novel was inspired by a true-life military expedition into the interior of Alaska. Ivey tells the story via an archive of documents belonging to the great-nephew of Colonel Allen Forrester; from journals, letters, other papers and objects. A framing letter sets the scene as Walter Forrester sends them to an Alaskan Historical Museum for transcription and conservation:

The colonel’s journey was a harrowing one. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning, but I don’t see as to how that takes away from its importance. His expedition is surely the Alaskan equivalent of Lewis and Clark’s, and these papers are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands and natives.

Several of his private journal entries are downright fantastical and don’t align with his official reports. Some who have read these pages write off the odder occurrences as hallucinations, brought on by starvation and exposure to the elements. Others have accused the Colonel of embellishing his journals in order to gain notoriety. But I tell you, he was neither a hysteric nor a charlatan. He was a West Point graduate who fought in the Indian Wars and negotiated himself out of capture by the Apaches, yet by all accounts he never sought the limelight. I’ve chosen to consider another possibility – that he described what he saw with his own two eyes.

Forrester agrees to take on a commission to explore the Wolverine river in Alaska with a small band of men, forging a new route for trade for Alaska’s bounty of riches. He will be parted from his young wife Sophie for about a year – they haven’t been married long. Sophie is somewhat of a bluestocking, an intelligent and educated Bostonian with her own sense of adventure. She would have travelled to Alaska with Allen to be based at Sitka, but as the expedition nears departure, she discovers she is pregnant and has to remain in at the barracks in Vancouver.

Forrester and his team begin their exploration accompanied by native Indian guides, preferring not to think about the fate accorded to a party of Russian missionaries, slain while they slept. This part of the expedition reminded me very much of parts of The Revenant – the sheer hardwork of going upriver, frequent encounters with the Indian tribes, difficult negotiations.

The myths and legends of the native tribes, and in particular, the antics of an old witchdoctor known as “The Man Who Flies” and a scary Indian woman, Nat’aaggi, who wears an otter pelt – which she says is her husband’s skin – that start to introduce the otherworldly feel alluded to by Walt into the narrative (and which fans of The Snow Child will have been hoping for). Nat’aaggi will prove herself to be more than the equal of any of the other Indian guides, but at first Forrester only refers to her in his journals as ‘the Indian woman’. 

Just occasionally, a hint of humour creeps into campfire conversations. After failing to catch a goose one day, the trapper Samuelson tells the men the story of how one tribe got their women:

When the world was small & mostly water, he said, women were geese. If a man wanted one, he had to go & catch her before she changed back & flew off.

-Course, then he’s got the trouble of bringing her home & trying to tame her. …

-It’s ridiculous! Pruitt said.

It all amused the trapper.

-So, he said.  -A woman from a rib you’ll have, but not from a goose?

Meanwhile Sophie, a keen ornithologist, is bored back at the barracks and takes up photography to while away the time, using her lens to see into and beyond the landscapes and wildlife she photographs. Her unconventional style is different to that of the other women at the barracks, who live for gossip, and it’s difficult to keep her pregnancy secret. Life separated from her beloved husband is not going to be easy for Sophie, it’ll take courage to get through the year for her too. Throughout it all though, you are never in doubt about Sophie and Forrester’s love for each other, despite Sophie’s doubts in her diary:

…here is my most callow admission – it wounds my pride to think Allen’s men know him better than I might ever hope to.

Ah, and this is the trouble with a diary. We are allowed to stand too long before its mirror and gaze at ourselves, where we unavoidably find vanity and fault. (p36)

Sophie and Allen’s story is framed by a contemporary exchange of letters between Forrester’s great-nephew, Walt, and Josh, the young curator of the Alaskan museum. Interspersed are occasional photos, descriptions of artefacts: e.g. Indian clothing and woven baskets, all adding to the research about the expedition. Although it broke up Sophie and Forrester’s narrative, this separate strand gave purpose to the overall story, the illustrations and catalogued items cleverly bringing it to life. Otherwise, the only points of view would have been those of Sophie and Forrester and thus limited by their observations. It was also lovely to see the growing friendship between the older Walt and Josh through their own letters, (Walt doesn’t do email.)

At upwards of 400 pages, this is not a short story, taking its time. As a love letter to Alaska’s wildness, and an account of the life and times of Allen and Sophie – the Shackleton-like Forrester, who wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he himself wouldn’t, and his Bostonian wife with an independent streak, it is indeed magical.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors, and loves a pioneer tale.

Eowyn Ivey, To the Bright Edge of the World (Tinder, 2016) hardback, 496 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)