When I read Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, I was struck by how deftly the author weaved Alaskan frontier life of the 1920s with a Russian fairytale. In this lovely story, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the homesteaders long for a child. After a snowfall, they make a snow child, which is magically replaced the next morning by a real little girl.
In Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, she continues to focus on the history of Alaska to create a beautiful, compelling story that also is tinged with magic. This time she took native Alaskan folktales and incorporated them into a story about Army Colonel Allen Forrester, who leads a small expedition 1,000 miles across the far north of Alaska in 1885. Ivey did extensive research about this time period and the story was inspired by the diaries and journals of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen’s exploration of the territory in 1885.
Colonel Forrester and his expedition discover many baffling occurrences along the way, including a mysterious old man who the natives call The Man Who Flies on Black Wings. The colonel is told by the natives that this old man with a lame leg can fly to the top of trees and be both helpful or mischievous. The natives also warn the colonel to be careful when crossing Kulgadzi Lake because it is home to a giant, prehistoric beast that is longer than two canoes end to end. He dismisses their warnings as superstition, much to his regret.
While Forrester is on his great adventure, he leaves behind his new wife Sophie, who finds life challenging living in the barracks of Vancouver, Washington. Sophie, who is an avid birder, does not enjoy hanging out with the gossiping wives who live in the town. She takes up the new art of photography, and is determined to take pictures of birds and nature with the old-fashioned plates used back then. She turns her small pantry into a darkroom, much to the horror or the other wives, who don’t approve of her going off into the woods with her camera contraptions. Sophie is a delightful character who is trying to find her own happiness beyond housekeeping and having tea with the ladies while constantly wondering if her husband is safe.
Ivey, who is a life-long Alaskan, wrote To the Bright Edge of the World in both letters and diary entries by Forrester, his assistant, Lt. Andrew Pruitt, and Sophie. There also are letters back and forth in the modern day from Forrester’s great nephew, Walt, and Josh, who runs a small museum on the Wolverine River, where the explorers had crossed in the 1800s. Walt, who is elderly, wants to give the museum his great uncle’s collection so the story will live on. Josh, who is an Alaskan Native American, becomes engrossed in the story as well, and learns a lot about the history of his people. The two men in their correspondence also discuss the huge impact the white explorers had on native Alaskans and their lands. Ivey’s characters are memorable, and the pioneer story is even more captivating with sprinkles of Native American folklore. To the Bright Edge of the World is an exceptional second book from a young author who has a bright future.