What is the bright edge of the world? This novel shows us at least two possibilities: the geographic edge of the explored world and the illumination at the edge of what is familiar.
The year is 1885. A pioneering nature photographer, Sophie Forrester, takes an unusual picture of a young hummingbird, showing a bright blade of light along the tiny fledgling’s wing as it takes flight for the first time. Sophie knows the light was only the effect of a sunbeam glancing off a branch, but the sliver of light makes the photo extraordinary, even transcendent.
At the same time, her husband, U.S. Army explorer Col. Allen Forrester, is leading an expedition to explore what many considered the edge of the world: the Wolverine River valley in the interior of Alaska, an area unseen by White Americans until then. He and his small party explore a land that is magnificent and terrifying, beautiful and deadly, encountering glimpses of phenomena that seem supernatural, even to this supremely rational man.
Novelist Eowyn Ivey tells their twin stories through letters and journals, seen through the eyes of Joshua Sloan, a young museum curator going through a box of their effects. The story is also framed with correspondence from an elderly man, Walter Forrester, who is the couple’s great-nephew.
Col. Forrester’s journal begins in March of 1885, on Perkins Island in Prince William Sound, Alaska. He has left Sophie behind at Vancouver Barracks and gone to explore the Wolverine River valley, to survey it, map it and report what he finds. A few Russians attempted a similar mission when Alaska was still Russian territory, and most of them died in the attempt. Things don’t look good on this first night: Forrester had been counting on Eyak men to serve as guides, but most of the men have gone off hunting sea otter, leaving only three Eyak boys too young for the hunt and one old man with a deformed leg. That night he sees the old man sitting in a spruce tree, roosting like a huge bird. He sets off anyway, with a White trapper, a stalwart Army sergeant, a young officer serving as camera operator and surveyor and the old Eyak. Soon they are joined by a young Native American woman who has a strange story about being married to an otter.
Meanwhile, back at Vancouver Barracks, Sophie has discovered she is pregnant. When the doctor confirms her pregnancy, she asks for one of his books so she can read about pregnancy and delivery. He refuses. She returns later, when he’s out of the office, and takes the book anyway. Sophie, enraptured with birds since childhood, spends a lot of her time bird-watching, to the disapproval of the other officers’ wives on the base. One tells her, “With field glasses. And those clothes! You look positively the vagrant in that floppy hat. Where on earth do you traipse off to? Even in the rain and the wind!” And then that same woman adds, “At least you aren’t like the others. So dreadfully predictable!” and later becomes one of Sophie’s few friends.
In her journal, Sophie writes often of her love of light, even as it collects in raindrops. She expands her love of light to a determination to take up photography, even taking everything out of her pantry to make it into a darkroom. Ivey writes beautifully of the interplay of light and darkness in photography, in the darkroom and in the finished images. To get closer to the birds she photographs, she builds a blind, dragging it into woods and fields to get extraordinary pictures.
While Sophie’s work develops, her husband is encountering the majesty of the Alaskan landscape, its ferocity toward those who want to explore it and some supernatural elements that astonish him. They learn a story about women being created from geese, and there’s some evidence that it may be true. The young officer scoffs at the story as ridiculous, but one of the other men wonders, “A woman from a rib you’ll have, but not from a goose?”
Ivey has created all the elements of this story: the characters, the journals, the occasional newspaper clipping, even the river that Col. Forrester is sent to explore. The fictional Wolverine River flows into the Gulf of Alaska, just east of Prince William Sound, and Col. Forrester’s mission is to trace it to its source, mapping, surveying and making reports. His party returns by way of two real rivers, the Tanana, which flows past what is now the town of Fairbanks, and the Yukon.
“To the Bright Edge of the World” requires some concentration to read at first. Its structure simulates going through an archive box and is almost exactly like the actual experience, with one paper or photograph at first not seeming connected to the last, characters unformed and nothing seeming to fit together.
But it does fit together, in an extraordinary story of love and endurance, history and mythology, fear and wonder. It takes a reader to the edge of unknown territory, in the natural world and in the astonishing landscapes we hold inside ourselves.
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