Eowyn Ivey was born and raised in Alaska and To the Bright Edge of the World is her tribute to this outstanding land. This novel is inspired by the real-life journey made in 1885 into Alaska led by Lieutenant Henry T. Allen and his Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska were starting point and steady source of information.
His voice is given to recently married Colonel Allen Forrester who is entrusted to map the impassable Wolverine River in Alaska and he writes his official reports to General station in Vancouver Barracks, he writes his own diary as well as he writes letters to his wife Sophie, so from the very beginning reader have an impression that he is reading a biographical novel as narrative takes forms from letters, articles to journals, drawings and photographs which add so much value for curious and hungry for facts readers. But this tale is not only an account of an expedition into the wildness of Alaska, but this is also a story of love, passion, curiosity and praise to nature and its people.
Allen sets out with an easy-going Sergeant Tillman and photographer who loves poetry Pruitt as well as extremely helpful trapper Samuelson. They travel through unknown and hostile territory, experience frostbites, hunger and loss of supplies. They run into the various Indian tribes often help them in troubles and save them from the certain death of exhaustion and hunger. They witness wildness of Alaska Territory, they see Aurora Borealis, they fight with a lake monster, they experience folklore and magical realism, they observe how native women changes to goose and many more which Colonel not prone to local believes or shamanism must report and acknowledge risking his reputation. At the end of his journey he writes to Sophie:
“I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living and & dead. It has been a strange experience indeed. All that I have taken for granted, of what is real & true, has been called into question”.
Allen and his men meet the indigenous tribes who played a remarkable role throughout the story. Their presence in this story is as crucial as the hostile climate they have learn so very well in order to survive over there. It is outstanding and heartbreaking to read how crucial was a help to the White People in order to persevere in this wildness and yet as Colonel himself realizes in his diary they exact actions lead them to their destruction as white people bring alcohol, influenza and many restrictions.
Indians helped and receive annihilation in return. There is an unforgettable dialogue between Allen and the Indian leader Tyone Ceeth Hwya written by Pruitt which says a lot about the Native nature and their attitude towards the land they live.
“– Does he know a way towards the mountain? We want to travel up the Wolverine River, over into the Tanana drainage.
Yes. Yes. […] He knows where you want to go. You haven’t told him why.
– That’s the way to our home.
It would be better to go back the way you came. He says the way through the mountains is not as good.
– We are determinated to go north. We would like to set out soon, so we will be home before winter.
If you want to be home, why did you come here?
– Tell him the United States of America now owns this land. We bought it from the Russians. We need to know what is here. Now that we know, we can go home.
How can this be your home, if you and your family and tyones live someplace else?
– This isn’t our home. We own the land. But it’s not our home. Our home is far away. Tell him I have a wife and child waiting for me. I want to see them. To do that, I have to get across these mountains.
You must have come for another reason. He says men don’t leave home unless they are after something. Is it fur? Slaves?
– We came to see the country. That is all. Now it is time for us to go home. We need to know the way through the mountains”.
While Allen pioneering through the mountains his wife finds out she is pregnant, tries to learn more what happens with the baby in her womb, starts her photographic journey and becomes professional birds’ photographer. She is strong and passionate women who do not fancy spending her time with other ladies, drinking tea and gossiping.
“I have only even been truly frightened of boredom and loneliness” - Bird Photographer Sophie Forrester
But this novel takes its remarkable journal from the past onto another level with letter exchange between Walt – a relative of Colonel Allen Forrester who read his letters all his life and dream to visit Alaska and Joshua Sloan, a museum curator in Alaska. Joshua transcripts all those letters where he reads about people have known from his mum telling him about his ancestors or from the local stories. We learn what the modern generation of Natives think about the past and how things connect with the present times.
Eowyn Ivey has done extraordinary research and came up with an epic story of the long-lost world. Characters are real and amazing and the love of Alaska and its wild but unquestionable beauty is magnificent. I love this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. If you will read To the Bright Edge of the World, and I hope you will, do not skip reading Acknowledge where Ivey gives sources of her research and inspirations. Check out Eowyn Ivey’s website as well as Alaska’s Digital Archives - I did spend one afternoon searching for the places described in the book and watching pictures of the native Midnooskies.
Reviewer: Monika Barrera
Date published: 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and COmpany, 417 pp
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Review rating: 5/5