Michael Dirda reviews ‘The Raven’s Gift,’ by Don Rearden

Some books are a real surprise. If I tell you that “The Raven’s Gift” is a novel about a young married couple who travel to a remote part of Alaska to teach Yup’ik children, you’re likely to start nodding off even before this sentence ends. But if I ask you to imagine a novel with the hunter-hunted suspense of Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male,” the post-apocalyptic bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and the haunting mysteriousness of “The X-Files,” then you’re far more likely to pay attention. So pay attention.

Don Rearden’s “The Raven’s Gift” is both of the above books, alternating between one story in the past and another in the present. In the earliest in time, the intrepid teachers John and Anna Morgan undergo considerable culture shock in isolated Nunacua but gradually connect with their students and make new friends. In these sections, Rearden sometimes verges on the didactic, eager to convey information about the Yup’ik people, their traditional hunting and fishing practices, and the current conditions of their lives under a government that treats them as inconvenient anachronisms while exploiting their land (for oil, for gold).

(Pintail) - “The Raven's Gift,” by Don Rearden

However, these scenes of cultural adjustment and a young couple’s growing happiness are entirely part of a vanished world and scarcely hint at the horrors of the present. Very early on, we realize that Anna is dead and that something inconceivably dreadful has happened in the region and possibly everywhere, though exactly what remains unclear. The novel opens this way:

“He crawled on his stomach through the snowdrift and lifted his head over the edge of the riverbank, just enough to see the first few houses, charred black and dislodged from the wood blocks and tall steel pilings meant to hold them off the tundra’s permafrost. Below the bank, the girl sat in a plastic orange toboggan, waiting. Her eyes stared back at him as white as the wisps of snow covering the thin river ice beneath her.

“ ‘They’re all gone here, too?’ she asked.

“He stopped short of shaking his head and half slid down the hard frozen embankment, holding the rifle on his lap.”

John doesn’t shake his head, we soon learn, because the girl — named Rayna — is blind. Also, for some reason, they are both strangely on edge because of some ski tracks. A few pages later, the two cautiously enter the town, hoping to find warm shelter, supplies or, as Rayna says, just “someone else, someone who needs us.” To which, John answers cryptically: “I only wish we could find someone like us.” Following smoke, they make their way to a dilapidated house, near which John stealthily hunkers down with his rifle:

“When he saw the door open he raised his glove to his mouth to tell her to be quiet. As if she would see the gesture. But she heard the hinges squeak and the footsteps on the stairs and she pressed herself down in an effort to sink into the frozen dirt and to never be seen. She took several quick stabs of breath. Her nose searched the air.

“He followed the man down the steps. The red bead on the metal sight at the end of his barrel slowly moved across the stained and tattered tan Carhartt jacket that covered the man’s chest. . . . He waited until the man was only twenty yards from them. The tan jacket hung open, his brown chest a thin line of ribs, the stomach wasted and stretched drum tight. His black hair hung along his face in greasy strands, his brown eyes hiding somewhere in the shadows of his skull.

“The girl screamed with the concussion. The shot reverberated against the hollow shell of a house above them and the man crumpled into the snow.”

At which point, Rearden breaks off, taking the reader back to his other story line, in which John and Anna have just signed their teaching contracts and are eagerly looking forward to their Alaskan adventure.

After a couple of pages, Rearden brings that idyll to a temporary halt but doesn’t immediately return to the moment of the shooting. Instead, he gives us another, much more recent glimpse into John’s past, one that ominously begins: “After several months he ventured outside the school for the first time.”

Here we learn of “the sickness” and of John’s discovery of the blind and starving Rayna hiding beneath a mattress in a derelict house. John knows he should just shoot her with his Glock, “to kill her for her own sake. For his own sake. She would be nothing but a burden.” But he can’t do it. “Even if the trip across the impossible expanse of snow, ice, and tundra would most likely kill them both, he couldn’t leave her to the cold, the empty cupboards, or the people she called the outcasts and their hunger.”

So far, we have only reached Page 38 of “The Raven’s Gift,” and it has already generated both shock and profound disquiet. What precisely has happened? Why is almost everyone now dead, except for the “outsiders”? Who is the relentless and murderous skier in white camouflage? How did John, Rayna and only a few others manage to survive? Above all, why did no help come when everyone began to die?

Meanwhile, Rearden, a master of the cliffhanger, keeps shifting from the blighted present to the happy past. We see John and Anna interact with their classes, make love, enjoy dinner with friends, attend a Russian Christmas party. Occasionally, their hosts complain that nobody cares about the Yup’ik. “We’re the invisible people.” But one friend speculates that if things should suddenly fall apart, “maybe some of us could still survive like we used to.”

Before “The Raven’s Gift” comes to its harrowing, mythic close, John and Rayna will aid a tough old woman, make unsettling discoveries about a group of Yup’ik children, and encounter a skinny conspiracy nut in a high-tech bunker: “I’m sure you’ve also noticed the lack of contrails from commercial jets, John?” Along the way, we will be treated to several Yup’ik legends and finally learn the promise extracted from John by the dying Anna. But there will be much more violence, as well as acts of love and sacrifice.

Rearden grew up in Alaska and teaches at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. As his acknowledgments and afterword to “The Raven’s Gift” make plain, he greatly admires the Yup’ik people, stressing that all their elders’ stories are about survival and “provide clues not just about how to survive the elements but about how to live on this planet as human beings.” Any number of writers could have produced a fine literary novel about a young couple discovering Yup’ik culture. But only an exceptional writer could write that fine literary novel and then relegate it to backstory, using its fragments to heighten the eeriness and drama of what is an intense thriller. And yet “The Raven’s Gift” also remains a love story — in fact, two love stories. What more could you ask?

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

THE RAVEN’S GIFT

By Don Rearden

Pintail. 279 pp. Paperback, $16

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