One of my favorite books this year is Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. It is a fictionalized account of the first expedition to explore Wolverine River in the newly-acquired Alaska Territory, led in the novel by Colonel Allen Forrester. Forrester records his exciting, harrowing, and even inexplicable experiences in his journal as letters to his wife, Sophie, who remains at the Vancouver Barracks, and who write letters and records her own experiences at the barracks as she bucks against the social expectations of the other soldiers’ wives by taking up photography and indulging her love of birding. Meanwhile, Sophie and Allen’s writings are punctuated by the scientific recordings and moral ravings of an unidentified voice (though it is easy to figure out who as the story goes on), as well as the context-setting and friendship-forming correspondence between Walter Forester, Allen’s elderly great-nephew, and Joshua Sloan, the young curator of the local museum in the Wolverine Valley, to whom Walter wants to donate the Forrester’s papers.
Ivey’s second novel, like her first, The Snow Child, deals beautifully with the history of exploration in Alaska and the interweaving of native and settler cultures. Ivey’s protagonists are always a little bit on the fringe of their societies, marching to the beat of their own drums, and this otherness makes Sophie, in particular, a truly compelling heroine, for heroine she is, despite holding down the fort in Allen’s absence. Sophie’s sections were the ones I looked forward to the most. Here is a woman, out of place in her East Coast home and equally othered in her new home in Vancouver: intellectually curious and a bit of a social odd duck but who found love and care with an equally intellectual yet unconventional man, the army hero who is more invested in people than accolades. Allen is what allows Sophie to enter into the replacement society of the Vancouver Barrack, a society that playacts the “refined parties” and social structures back East. But when he’s gone, it is Sophie who handles the gossiping women who pass judgement on her every act; Sophie who deals with a difficult and, at times, terrifying pregnancy; Sophie who bucks convention to learn the art of photography; Sophie who manages the accounts carefully and precisely; Sophie who builds a darkroom in their home; and Sophie who creates an entire life for herself while leaving just enough space for Allen to fit into when he comes home. Sophie is at once historical and familiar, and she does not shy away either her societal othering of the barrack’s women or her self-recognized othering of her own intellectual and artistic pursuits. We can all aspire to be Sophie: the person who not just survives but rises above, claims her agency, and finds purpose and joy in the face of challenges big and small.
I did love Allen’s sections, too, for that’s where the mystery and danger and adventure were. Ivey does a marvelous job interweaving the folklore of the native peoples of the area into the story, exploring the intersection of myth and reality and the questioning Allen and his men engage in based on their line-blurring experiences. Seeing is believing but what if you don’t know how to believe what you see? Allen’s experiences with othering end up being drastically different from Sophie’s. Like her, Allen is othered by his experiences and the people that he meets, but it is clearly a new experience for him, the one used to being in control and in command, not only of those around him but his environment as well. His journey through the Wolverine emphasizes his and his team’s position as both cultural and environmental outsiders: they are new to the country, its mysteries, and its dangers, as well as to the people who live there. Modes of survival, rules of social interaction, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality are all at odds with Allen’s entire life experience, and he and his team are at the mercy of nature’s brutal fickleness, the generosity of people who have no reason to treat them kindly, and the mysterious forces at work around them. Through it all, Sophie is Allen’s constant, keeping him anchored through the increasingly inexplicable events of his journey. The two on the fringes of their worlds find safe harbor with each other.
Honestly, this is a gorgeous book. Perhaps it a bit of a tough sell–a novel about the exploration of the Alaska Territory might be dry, boring, or even gruesome to some, invoking images of last year’s Oscar winner, The Revenant. However, as with all good stories, it is the characters who stick out, who make the tale. In this review, I hardly touch on Walter and Josh’s burgeoning friendship, but it, too, is one where those who are different find comfort in each other and teach each other in the process. I feel like I’d been on a reading spree of books that I liked just fine, but To the Bright Edge of the World started me on a sequence of books I loved. So do yourself a favor and check it out.