January 28, 2018

The Alaskan Laundry

The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones (2016) is a pretty good book, and a great one for getting into the setting of Alaska. The title comes from one of the supporting characters, Newton Scarpe, called Newt, who is just chock full of colorful metaphors (sadder than a midget with a yo-yo; clean as a broke-dick dog), including this one.

Lemme be the one to tell you–all of us in this state are just getting whipped around on one continuous cycle, washed clean of our sins.

It’s mentioned a few times in the book, and Tara seems to buy into to it, because she starts telling it to people too.

He has this idea that the state’s on one continuous wash cycle. The Alaskan laundry, that’s what he calls it. Everyone coming north to get clean of their past.

And once more, for good measure.

We’re all tumbling around in the Alaskan laundry out here. If you do it right you get all that dirt washed out, then turn around and start making peace with the other shit. Maybe even make a few friends along the way.

Tara, the protagonist, certainly fits the metaphor of coming north to get clean of her past. Brandy, from And She Was by Cindy Dyson, also fits the metaphor, although she arrived by following a man, she was definitely running and once she got the Dutch Harbor she began working on leaving her past behind. (By the way, there’s a section in The Alaskan Laundry where Tara visits Dutch Harbor and Unalaska, and she actually goes to the Elbow Room, which is the bar where Brandy worked in And She Was!)

Many of the supporting characters in both books fit the metaphor as well, although I would argue (and Zachary points out to Tara), that some of them are just running, not trying to get clean. “I’ve seen some folks get pretty dirty in the process.”

In terms of setting, I really enjoyed the author’s use of food, and wild edibles in particular. So much so that I’ve already made several posts about it (Food as Setting; A Tlingit Meal) and it’s made me revisit several of the other Alaskan books to look for food tidbits as well (Lusta; Alodiks).

Several of the reviews of this book on Goodreads indicated that the fishing descriptions got a bit overwhelming, and I can sympathize. I wasn’t overwhelmed but there were a few times when it was a close call. It’s obvious that the author knows what he’s talking about and has experience with the fishing itself, not just the jargon. For me, particularly for this challenge of mine, it was great–it really brought the setting to life and made it real. The fact that Tara was new to it all helped, as we were learning right along with her, so it wasn’t awkward to have the “beginner’s explanation” worked into the story.

Where I did find the story a bit awkward was the sections on Tara’s friendship with Betteryear, the old Tlingit man. Don’t get me wrong–some of my favorite parts of the book were the detailed descriptions of the wild edibles and Tlingit food traditions. However, I found the way they became friends very unconvincing. He basically picks her up at the library, and, boom, they’re going off into the woods gathering wild mushrooms. No questions asked. The author hints at a falling out (quite possibly abuse) between Betteryear and his daughters, but never once does Tara ask about his family. Never does she question the people who hint that the old man has a temper and does she know what she’s doing hanging out with him. And then, boom, he’s gone. And the author kind of just says she doesn’t feel she has the right to ask or know (and perhaps it’s too late by then and she doesn’t have the right).

It was the first time on the island she sensed a darkness, the dimensions of which she couldn’t quite fathom. She knew then, sitting in that room, that she never would. She didn’t have rights to it.

I guess that feeling is also at the heart of the decision she makes at the end of the book–a decision which I felt was a bit of a let-down. I suppose the ending could be seen as more open-ended, since it’s not really made clear, but the last word in the book is, “home,” which leads me to believe that is where she will be staying. (I’m trying to leave this vague enough for it not to count as a spoiler!)

Overall, I’m glad I added it to my challenge list for Alaska because it’s really great for getting into the setting. The detailed information on commercial fishing in Alaska and on wild edibles made it a definite winner for me. If you’re looking for that kind of immersion in the setting, it’s perfect. I was less impressed with various aspects of character and story, and a few details were off (at one point she goes to second-hand store to pick up a “red wool halibut coat and a torn watchman’s cap” – the coat, fine, but she got one of the ubiquitous black knitted caps–a torn one at that, and how does one tear a knit garment–at a second-hand shop? Really?), but all in all this was a good read.

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