To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child was always going to be a hard act to follow and I think my fear that Eowyn Ivey’s second novel would be a disappointment could explain why I’ve been putting off reading it since it was published last year. Including it on my list for the 20 Books of Summer challenge gave me the push that I needed to pick it up and start reading – and I’m pleased to say that, although The Snow Child is still my favourite, there was very little disappointment here!

To the Bright Edge of the World, like Ivey’s first novel, is set in Alaska – but other than that, it’s a very different type of book. It tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester who, in 1885, is commissioned to lead an expedition with the aim of navigating Alaska’s Wolverine River and charting previously unmapped territory. Through a series of journal entries we are able to join Allen and his small group of companions on their journey and are with them every step of the way as they struggle over difficult terrain, face harsh weather and encounter native tribes. It all feels so authentic that you could easily believe Allen Forrester was a real person and these were his real diaries – actually, he is a fictional character but it seems that Eowyn Ivey based him on a real-life explorer, Lieutenant Henry T. Allen, who led an expedition in that same year up the Copper River (reimagined as the ‘Wolverine River’ in the novel).

Although this book does not have the fairy tale feel of The Snow Child and is much more grounded in reality, myth and folklore still play an important part in the story. As they make their way up the Wolverine River, Allen and his men are followed by an Old Man who is said to be able to fly and are joined by a woman called Nat’aaggi who believes that her husband was an otter.

– They believe it is a thin line separates animal and man, Samuelson said. – They hold that some can walk back & forth over that line, here a man, there a beast.

This is not just Allen’s story, however. It is also the story of Sophie, his wife, who had hoped to join her husband on his adventures but had to settle for being left behind at Vancouver Barracks. Desperately awaiting news, with no way of knowing if Allen is even alive or dead, it’s going to be difficult for Sophie to get through the months ahead. Looking for something to fill her days, she decides to take up photography and develops a passion for her new hobby, going to ever greater lengths to capture photographs of the wildlife and birds she sees around the barracks.

Sophie also keeps a journal, recording her thoughts and feelings so that she can share them with her husband when he returns, and these two journals – Sophie’s and Allen’s – form the bulk of the novel, one set of entries alternating with the other. I was interested in both and although Allen’s may sound much more exciting, I had no preference for one over the other. There were some passages from each journal that I found slightly tedious or where I felt that things were being dragged out for too long, but a few pages later I would be pulled back into the story again. I liked both characters, so that helped!

The 19th century stories of Allen and Sophie are interspersed with contemporary letters exchanged between Walter Forrester, their great-nephew, and Josh Sloan, the curator of a museum in Alaska. Walter has decided to make a gift of the Forrester journals and the other artefacts from the expedition to the museum – and we are given the opportunity to see some of these artefacts, which include photographs, illustrations, newspaper reports and fragments of documents. These are not always presented in chronological order, which is sometimes confusing, but it gives the overall effect of looking through a scrapbook or somebody’s private collection of memorabilia. It was also nice to watch a friendship developing between Walt and Josh, two men of different generations and backgrounds, living many miles apart.

Not knowing very much about Alaska and its history, I feel that I’ve learned a lot from this novel, as well as being entertained by a fascinating story.

This is book 9/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, is set in 1920s Alaska, where Mabel and her husband Jack are planning to start a new life. Mabel is still grieving for her still-born child and sees the move to Alaska as a chance to come to terms with the fact that she’s never going to be a mother. But things are proving to be a lot harder than she expected – clearing the land for farming is too much work for Jack, food is becoming scarce, and Mabel is beginning to feel lonely and desperate.

When the first snow of the winter arrives, Mabel and Jack decide to build a child from snow. By morning the snow child has gone and Jack catches a glimpse of a little girl running through the trees. But as Faina slowly becomes a part of Jack and Mabel’s lives, they begin to wonder: is she a real child or has she been created from two people’s hope and love?

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s inspired by an old Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. The story has been retold many times over the years but this book takes a fresh approach by combining the feel of a timeless fairy tale with the harsh realities of life as a homesteader in early 20th century Alaska.

The novel has a very small number of characters, which is to be expected considering that the area of Alaska in which Mabel and Jack lived was very sparsely populated. Something I thought the author managed to convey very well was the complete isolation Jack and Mabel experienced during their early days in Alaska and the many dangers they faced, including starvation, ‘cabin fever’, and the risks of injury or sickness in a place where even the closest town is too small to have a doctor.

Among the few other people we do meet are a neighbouring family, George and Esther Benson and their three sons. I particularly loved the character of Esther: a woman who knew what had to be done to survive in the wilderness and was prepared to do it. And as for Faina herself, I thought she was a fascinating character, mysterious and otherworldly but with a charm and vulnerability that made it easy to understand why a lonely middle-aged couple would welcome her into their lives.

But my favourite thing about The Snow Child is the stunning setting Eowyn Ivey has chosen for her story. Her knowledge and love of Alaska comes through in the beautifully written descriptions of the snowy landscapes, complete with frozen rivers, swirling snowflakes and icy mountain ridges. It’s all very atmospheric and the perfect backdrop for such an enchanting and magical story.

The Snow Child will be published in February 2012 and I can promise you it’s worth waiting for. It really is a lovely story and a very impressive debut novel from Eowyn Ivey.

Thanks to Headline for sending me a review copy of this book.