Saturday, September 17, 2016

To the Bright Edge of the World

Title:  To the Bright Edge of the World
Author:  Eowyn Ivey
Publication Information: Little, Brown and Company. 2016. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0316242853 / 978-0316242851

Book Source:  Reviewed based on a publisher’s galley received through NetGalley

Opening Sentence:  "I warned you I am a stubborn old man."

Favorite Quote:  "But what makes the questions of cultural loss the most uncomfortable, and difficult for me to address, are the inherent definitions built into it. If a group of people is described as existing in a state of loss, it is necessarily therefore lesser, and those that took greater. It's such a limiting and two-dimensional idea. Who defines wealth and success? How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?"

Eowyn Ivey's first book The Snow Child is also set in Alaska but based on a Russian folk tale.  I read it and loved it. Be aware that this book is not the same. It is an entirely different story told in an entirely different manner. As I begin this book, I am not so sure because my expectations are high and I expect a certain kind of story. I read on, still not sure if I like the story or format. I keep reading, and then find myself completely engaged in the characters and the story.

As reader, I know a book gets to me and becomes real when I find myself researching online for the history of fictional characters. They sound so real that they must be real. Eowyn Ivey's latest book manages to do just that. Although the idea of the book is loosely based on an actual Alaskan exploration by Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, the story is pure fiction. However, even as I research to write this review, the fact that all of it except for the very basic history is fiction still surprises me.

Alaskan history dates back to the Paleolithic period. By the 1700s, the Russians controlled Alaska. In 1867, US Secretary of State William Seward and the US Senate entered into an agreement to purchase Alaska from Russia for a price of $7.2 million. The purchase became known as Seward's Folly for the unknown, unexplored land was though to be of no value. Then came the exploration of this vast wilderness and its indigenous cultures.

This is where this story begins. The year is 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester is a career army man. His current command is to lead a mission to explore the Wolverine River Valley; the objective is to pave the way for explorers and settlers. Accompanying him is a small team, each with his or her own story including the army man looking to escape the horrors he has been part of, the trapper looking to make his fortune, and the strong, independent native woman who joins their troupe. Along the way, realism mixes with mythology in the people they meet and the adventures they encounter. The other side of the story is the home front. Sophie Forrester is the wife who stays home. Not content with the traditional role many women seem to play in her word, she strikes her own path in her friendships and her chosen pastimes. Through the course of the book, each and every character - human or mythological - becomes so completely real.

That, of course, is a testament to the format and to Eowyn Ivey's writing. The entire story is written as original documents - photographs, maps, catalog entries,  newspaper clippings, letters, and journal entries. This approach is immensely successful in this book. The descriptions of the natural world are breathtaking. The incorporation of mythological creatures and beliefs seems like a continuation of reality and fits in the with the surroundings even as it remains mysterious and unexplained to the end. The human characters are flawed and believable. The plot itself is part history, part action, part myth, and part love story. The beautiful thing is that all these parts come together to form a cohesive and memorable story that feels so completely real.

Interview with Eowyn Ivey

As a visitor to Alaska, I was moved and awed by the natural grandeur. Being constantly surrounded by it, do you get used to it or does it forever keep its ability to amaze?
It's so easy to take our surroundings for granted -- I think that's true no matter where we live. But whenever I'm out in the Alaska wilderness, whether I'm by myself or with family or friends, I always have a moment that takes my breath away, even if I've been on that exact mountainside or river bank before. And that awe is important to me, it keeps me grounded and at home, so as much as possible I try to make room for it in my life.

What is the art to making characters so real?
Thank you for describing it that way, as an art. In truth at times it feels more like hard, awkward work, especially at the beginning. I always joke that when I first start writing a story or a novel, it's like I'm holding up stick puppets and forcing them to talk to each other in these silly voices. But as time goes and the story develops, I discover more and more about a character, the smallest details of mannerisms or memories or opinions, and it's just like coming to know a real person. The character becomes important to me and fully formed, and then I know I'm on the right track.

What were the challenges to writing a fictional story as told through "original" documents?

From the beginning I was excited to tell Bright Edge as if someone were opening a dusty crate of postcards, letters, and diaries, and I think I was somewhat naive about how difficult it would be. It was only once I got well into that writing that I began to have serious doubts that I could pull it off, and several times I considered rewriting the entire novel in a more straight forward, third-person narrative. But I was fortunate enough to have some early readers who encouraged me to stay with it, and I'm glad I did. Having the forms of letters and military reports and diaries provided me with a framework, which was great, but it also challenged me in ways that I hadn't predicted, in terms of how I could reveal elements of character and plot and suspense. I feel like I learned a lot as a writer through the process.

The ultimate question - What is next?

I have a few ideas tumbling around in my head, but I find that wintertime in Alaska is when I can best sit down and really focus on writing. So once our kids are settled back in school, I'm done with some book tour traveling this fall, and the days get darker and quieter up here, I'll see where the ideas take me. Thank you for asking!

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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