To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Attention Mr. Joshua Sloan
Alpine Historical Museum
I warned you I am a stubborn old man. These boxes have the papers I told you about, the letters and journals from my great-uncle's 1885 expedition across Alaska. I know you said you weren't able to take them on, but I'm sending them anyways. You'll change your mind once you read through all this. Truth be told, I don't have much choice. I never had children of my own, and all the relatives are dead. When my turn comes, these papers will be thrown out with everything else. For most of my life they have been crammed in trunks and boxes, and they show signs of wear. It would be a shame for them to be lost altogether.
First of all, I love a good epistolary novel. Books told through diaries, letters, pictures, note cards, newspaper articles - love them. To the Bright Edge of the World is indeed such a book. It is the second novel by Eowyn Ivey (and her name - Eowyn - is pronounced A-o-win - she's named after the character in Lord of the Rings). I read this book recently for a book group and it was a really good and thoughtful discussion. Almost everyone liked it very much, though there were some who had reservations about certain aspects - the hardship experienced by the characters in travelling through and exploring Alaska in the late 1880's and also the deprivation that existed for the Native peoples that already had lived there for generations. Some also had trouble with the hazy, magical-realism sort of feel to many parts. There were legends and tales - shape shifters or maybe not - a raven that might have been a shaman or just a bird.
There was also a great and evocative love story between Colonel Forrester and his wife, Sophie. She must stay behind at Ft. Vancouver, Washington while her husband and his men travel for months on end to learn new things about this beautiful and scary territory far to the north. Though the soldiers certainly have trials, Sophie does as well. She takes up a new pursuit, photography, and patiently learns how to operate the camera she acquires and also how to calm her own fears because of things in her past. And she waits and waits for word about the explorers.
I enjoyed the references to the Columbia River Valley area, Portland, and Mt. Hood. The occasional descriptions of the Pacific Northwest and flora and fauna were welcome. This book was not a quick read and it's not a short one either. When I appeared at the book group, several said 'I thought you didn't read books like this...' and I don't, usually. Though I am so glad that I decided to try it. The author, Ivey, is a native Alaskan and lives with her family there. It was apparent to me that she knew much about the country and also that she had done much research. The book also includes a current day aspect, shown above in the 'first paragraph' section, in which a descendent of Colonel Forrester donates the diaries and papers to an Alaskan museum. The relationship that develops between the older gentleman that donates the material and the museum director was poignant as well. So, what's my verdict - I loved this book. It is highly recommended by me.
In the winter of 1885, decorated war hero Colonel Allen Forrester leads a small band of men on an expedition that has been deemed impossible: to venture up the Wolverine River and pierce the vast, untamed Alaska Territory. Leaving behind Sophie, his newly pregnant wife, Colonel Forrester records his extraordinary experiences in hopes that his journal will reach her if he doesn't return--once he passes beyond the edge of the known world, there's no telling what awaits him.
The Wolverine River Valley is not only breathtaking and forbidding but also terrifying in ways that the colonel and his men never could have imagined. As they map the territory and gather information on the native tribes, whose understanding of the natural world is unlike anything they have ever encountered, Forrester and his men discover the blurred lines between human and wild animal, the living and the dead. And while the men knew they would face starvation and danger, they cannot escape the sense that some greater, mysterious force threatens their lives.
Meanwhile, on her own at Vancouver Barracks, Sophie chafes under the social restrictions and yearns to travel alongside her husband. She does not know that the winter will require as much of her as it does her husband, that both her courage and faith will be tested to the breaking point. Can her exploration of nature through the new art of photography help her to rediscover her sense of beauty and wonder?
The truths that Allen and Sophie discover over the course of that fateful year change both of their lives--and the lives of those who hear their stories long after they're gone--forever.