I like the novelty of a story told through letters, photos, journals, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016) is such a book, and it’s wonderfully done.
It’s mostly centered in 1885, switching back and forth between the journals of Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife Sophie Forrester. The Colonel is leading an expedition into the wild interior of the Alaskan frontier. Sophie, who is an amateur naturalist, had hoped to accompany the expedition partway – to Sitka – but at the last minute she has to remain behind on her own at Vancouver Barracks in Washington. They are able to exchange a few letters, but mostly their thoughts are recorded in their daily journals.
The journals are supplemented, most notably, by modern day commentary in the form of letters exchanged between Walter Forrester and Joshua Sloan. Walt is the great-nephew of Allen and Sophie, and he has sent the journals and accompanying materials to Josh, who is the curator of a museum located along the route of the original expedition, and a member of the Wolverine River tribe of Native Americans.
The novel could be best described as a mixture of historical fiction and magical realism. Much of the Colonel’s journal is reminiscent of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, except that they are also filled with the expedition’s encounters with the mythology of the native peoples of the region, brought to life in ways that the group is hard-pressed to believe and harder-pressed to explain. Sophie’s journal details some of her struggles as an independent, yet respectable, woman, to follow her own sometimes lonely path which winds between traditional and non-traditional roles and expectations.
Of the supporting characters, those of Pruitt and Tillman, who accompany the Colonel on the expedition, are the best developed, perhaps Pruitt more so since Forrester served with him previously and tries to work out the mystery of why he seems so changed. The trapper and interpreter Samuelson and the young native woman, Nat’aaggi, who travels with them, as well as Samuelson’s partner Boyd, are much less fleshed out. I think this has a lot to do with the format of the story being told through the Colonel’s personal journal – he just doesn’t spend much time writing details about the others’ pasts, motivations, feelings, etc.
Forrester also seems to identify with Pruitt as the one most like himself. The change in the young man bothers him and when he discovers its reasons, he writes about that because it is something he feels strongly about. But Tillman’s youthful exuberance, proclivity toward fighting and promiscuous behavior, and liking for alcohol annoy the Colonel, both personally and as a commanding officer. He mostly tolerates Tillman, though he does come to value his contributions as well.
Sophie Forrester, who we also come to know through her journals, is a wonderful, unconventional woman of her time. She is an amateur naturalist, making observations and drawings, particularly of birds. When she hears that Pruitt will be bringing a camera on the expedition, she becomes interested in photography as a means of better capturing images of the birds she sees. She is characterized as almost insatiably curious, even about subjects not considered proper or appropriate for women of her time, yet she does not come across to me as bold and brashly rebellious, but rather quietly, calmly so. She refuses to conform to the mold, but doesn’t make a scene about it. Allen approves of her interests in birds, the natural world, and photography, and is infected with her enthusiasm. He tells her she should purchase a camera and make a go of learning photography. When they were first courting, she told him she wanted more than anything to see a hummingbird’s nest, and he found one for her.
Then there are the mythical mystical elements come to life – the trickster Raven, sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel; Fog Woman; the Otter People (who we met briefly in And She Was through a ghost story); the Wolverine People; the Geese Women; the spruce tree baby. As the expedition travels deep into the untouched wild heart of Alaska, they are pulled deeper and deeper into mystery and myth. Nat’aaggi warns them several times.
We walk towards the land of the dead. From here on, nothing follows white man’s rules. The old stories live.
It’s a fantastic journey, and I’m glad I went along for the ride.