I’m going to come clean right away: I’m addicted to Arctic pain porn. That’s a shorthand term, of course: I’m equally enamored of tales of Antarctic pain porn (think Shackleton), Everest pain porn (the genre made famous by Jon Krakauer), and Alaskan and Canadian and (quite probably) Patagonian pain porn. Any novel or memoir that involves the spectacular beauty and brutal killing power of the extreme cold is catnip for me. Clearly, I’m not alone.
Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, “To the Bright Edge of the World,” is a terrific example of why we love these stories of man-against-nature. But it also aspires to be something more. It has the requisite cast of explorers attempting to survive in the uncharted and inhospitable Alaskan wilderness in the late 19th century, but it is also lush with magical realism.
In some ways, this is the perfect book for Ivey to write after her lovely, moving and wonderful first novel, “The Snow Child,” which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. That book, a haunting reimagining of a Russian fairy tale about a childless couple and the inevitable heartbreak of the little girl they build from snow, was also set in Alaska, but it was — by design — more restrained and compact. “To the Bright Edge of the World” has much more epic ambitions.
It’s 1885, and Col. Allen Forrester has been asked to lead a small, motley crew of soldiers, trappers and Native Americans up the uncharted Wolverine River and cross Alaska in the winter. He is a newlywed, and his young wife, Sophie, will remain behind in Oregon.
The novel is based loosely on an actual expedition that year by Lt. Henry T. Allen. Ivey has built her narrative around a combination of fictional diary entries, mostly written by Col. Forrester and Sophie, but she also creates newspaper stories, a museum guidebook to the artifacts from the expedition, and contemporary letters between one of Forrester’s descendants and a museum curator. In addition, there are period photographs, diagrams and excerpts from a book on obstetrics.
The story moves back and forth between the hardships of the expedition and the degradations Sophie must endure as a woman back home. Forrester and his party face pretty much what you would expect in Alaska in the winter: cold and ice and starvation. Sophie must face down the busybodies at the fort who are appalled at her desire to understand the physiology of her pregnancy and her “unwholesome, even wicked” ambition to be a photographer.
But it’s evident from Ivey’s two books that she is also interested in the inexplicable magic of the world — real or imagined — that hovers just beyond our conscious perceptions. And so, while she is certainly deft at conveying the “gray rivers that roar down from the glaciers, mountains & spruce valleys,” she is equally at home dropping a sea monster into those waters.
Among the principal characters in the novel is the quiet but interesting Nat’aaggi, a Native American woman who travels with Forrester’s men. She claims to have slashed her husband’s throat because it turned out that he was secretly an otter — and an adulterous otter who had an otter wife.
Moreover, linking Allen’s and Sophie’s sagas is that ultimate “harbinger of death,” a raven. But the bird is also an ancient Native American shaman who is at once very evil and very helpful:
“The Old Man can change the weather, make people sick or cure them, as suits his mood. Years ago, they say, he stole an Eyak’s wife & the husband shot him. The Old Man just coughed up the bullet, spat it on the ground, & went on unharmed.”
He seems to fly between the married couple, perhaps even causing Sophie’s miscarriage early into the novel and then birthing the baby from the roots of a tree in Alaska.
Perhaps because of my preference for heartbreak and dread in fiction (a personality disorder, I admit), on occasion I wished that Sophie and Allen weren’t so relentlessly good. The colonel is, mostly, patient, forward-thinking and resourceful. Sophie is a plucky feminist with a sense of humor. I craved a little of the tension that marked the behavior of that couple coping with the loss of a baby in Ivey’s first novel. The new book could also be shorter; I know from experience how often I have fallen in love with my research and bogged down a narrative.
Nevertheless, “To the Bright Edge of the World” is a moving, surprising story. The Arctic Addict in me is very grateful that Ivey wrote it.
Chris Bohjalian is the author of 19 books. His most recent novel is “The Guest Room.”
By Eowyn Ivey
Little, Brown. 417 pp. $26