IN A POSTSCRIPT to The Sea Runners Ivan Doig speaks of the "great and terrible journey" made by three Scandinavians -- Gronland, Lyndfast, Wasterholm -- who escaped from Russian America during the winter of 1852-53. A fourth man, whose name has been forgotten, also began this journey but was killed by Indians. The survivors made it to Willapa Bay, just north of the Columbia River, and probably would have died there if they had not been discovered by Washington oystermen. On the basis of this event, about which very little is known, the author has built a trim, salty novel.
Melander, Braaf, Karlsson and Wennberg, all indentured servants at New Archangel -- today called Sitka -- decide that their seven-year obligation cannot be met. So, under the stewardship of Melander, they accumulate what they will need: gunpowder, fishing lines, blankets, rope, compass, spyglass, candles, hatchets, fire steel and flint, a map case waterproofed with birch tar -- most of it filched by light-fingered Braaf. "Put it simply, stealing was in Braaf like blood and breath. He was a Stockholm street boy, son of a waterfront prostitute and the captain of a Baltic fishing ketch, and on his own in life by the age of seven."
From New Archangel to their intended destination, Astoria, is about as far from Stockholm around the coast of Europe to Italy, with two significant differences. First, instead of meeting civilized people en route these fugitives could look forward to a variety of dangerous Indians. Second, they did not know where Astoria was because Russian maps did not extend that far.
On the night of January 7, 1853, the night after Christmas according to Russian calculations, they shove off in a stolen Tlingit canoe, 20 feet long, "its wooden skin not much more than the thickness of a thumb," bearing painted oval designs with black centers, like egg-shaped eyes, to counter the weight of evil.
At dawn -- behold! A canoe in pursuit.
"You long-ass bastard, Melander!" cries Wennberg.
"'The Russians won't follow us,' ay?" But the pursuers are Tlingits, who quit paddling when it becomes apparent that the white-haired thieves will fight.
After that it is North Pacific rain, willow-green coast, seasickness, and paddle-paddle-paddle.
One evening ashore Braaf feels himself watched. But the observer is a totem pole with a hooked beak and eyes the size of his hands. Some 60,000 Indians inhabit these shores: Haida, Bellabella, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Tsimshian.
On a raw morning as a pair of cormorants hangs above the tidal boulders they find another canoe on the gravel beach -- a carved cedar shell much larger than their own, large enough to hold eight or 10 seal hunters. Wennberg, a blacksmith, smashes the hull with a heavy rock and the fugitives desperately shove off again, but this time their luck fails: "Melander, almost tidily, lay folded forward, the upper part of his long body across his knees, the back of his head inclined toward the other three canoemen as if to show them where the musket ball had torn its red hole."
Now they are three.
Karlsson becomes the leader by default because clever little Braaf is unable to read a map and burly Wennberg has not brains enough to lead his shadow. So they work interminably south toward Astoria, Wennberg either seasick or complaining. One day Karlsson bags a blacktailed deer and they feed on it until they wobble.
At some point the canoe slides into a new season: "Out of their winter rust, ferns unroll green. Up from the low dampness of the forest the blooms of skunk cabbage lick, a butter-gold flame and scent like burnt sugar." Seals bob in the offshore swells, saimon turn home, gray whales leave Baja. "Geese and ducks and whistling swans write first strokes of their calligraphy of flight northward."
Still the Scandinavians have not reached Astoria. Wennberg therefore concludes he might be justified in squeezing the life out of Karlsson -- until a rifle barrel presses against his ear.
Fog, rain, beans and mussels collected for lunch until even the huge blacksmith begins to look flat. Then, with the tide flowing, Karlsson shoots a seal. Braaf, quick on his feet, starts toward it. "Of what happened next, only this much is sure. That amid a climbing stride by Braaf as he began to cross the wrist of rock. . . " Ah, but if you want to find out what did happen next you will have to get The Sea Runners.
It's a taut story. That long gray dripping coast becomes almost palpable. Wennberg, Karlsson, Melander and Braaf are convincing.
The narration sometimes is beaten out of shape, as though the blacksmith had been allowed to hammer it: "Whale stood on end in dive through contorted lesser creatures. . . . This coast's mornings are as if a brawl had gone on. . ." Such artificially compressed prose becomes distracting and annoying. Good writers don't torture the language. Nevertheless there is quite a lot of good prose in The Sea Runners, and Ivan Doig probably will outgrow these mannerisms. Aiready he has joined the company of Janet Lewis, John Williams, and a few other sensitive novelists who know how to utilize the past.