To my surprise there are a lot of books written about or set in Alaska, which just goes to show how narrow my reading habits must be! For several years I have been trying to get out of my comfort zone and read from a more diverse collection of authors and to read books that were set in a broader range of locations, so this exercise of finding books for an Alaskan cruise has opened up another avenue for me to explore.
Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey was a Pulitzer Prize Winner Finalist in 2012. It is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale but this time set in Alaska in the 1920s. The story centers on a young, childless couple who are homesteading in the rough wilderness and are drifting apart under the heavy physical toll of farming and their loneliness and isolation. During the the first snowfall, in a spontaneous act they build a child out of the snow. By the next morning the snow child is gone but they catch glimpses of a young blond haired girl in the forest. The young couple love this little girl who calls herself Faina, but in this wilderness which is both beautiful and violent, things are not always what they seem.
To the Bright Edge of The World is Ivey’s most recent book (2016.) The story focuses on an 1885 expedition into the the uncharted and untamed Alaskan Territory. Although the expedition has been deemed impossible, Colonel Allen Forester, a decorated war hero, leads a small group of men, up the Wolverine River Valley to the vast territory beyond the edge of the world. During his expedition, Forrester keeps a journal which he hopes will be recovered and returned to his pregnant wife Sophie, if something should happen to him on this journey. As he records their encounters with the natural elements, the wildlife in this serene but often violent habitat and their various encounters with the native tribes, Forestor and his men begin to sense a mysterious force that seems more threatening than the elements for which they had prepared. Meanwhile Sophie, who awaits for husband’s return at the Vancouver Barracks, faces her own tests of faith and courage. Highly regarded by the Washington Post as a “Most Notable Book of the Year,” and by Amazon as one of the “Best Books of 2016,” this book seems ideally suited to those who want to know more about the Alaskan wilderness in a historical context.
Ian McGuire, although British has also written a highly acclaimed novel called The North Water which is set aboard a whaling vessel in 1859. Patrick Sumner, a physician who fled India after Sepoy Rebellion, decides to find refuge from his sins and failures in the north. But he finds that his fellow crew members are carrying secrets that are even worse than his own especially a harpooner named Henry Drax who commits a horrific act. As the the drama aboard ship worsens and the captain’s own criminal intentions are revealed the ship and crew are trapped by sea ice and are forced to winter over. Described as “…dark, violent, tightly wound and impossible to put down,” by one Alaskan blogger, this will probably appeal to those who like their books keeping them up at night!
Moving on from historical novels we now move onto what one reviewer called “[a] hardboiled mythical/comic/religious/political page-turner of a novel;” Michael Chabon’s, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This book is set in a mythical Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven for Jewish refugees, created in response to the Holocaust and after the newly created state of Israel unexpectedly collapsed in 1948. Now, however, after 60 years the Federal District is scheduled to revert to Alaskan control and there is much anxiety and concern among the Jews who have made their lives there. Against this political back drop we follow Homicide Detective Meyer Landsman, who is investigating the murder of chess prodigy who was killed by someone with the audacity to do it in the hotel where Landsman is currently living. Landsman is a mess. His marriage is falling apart, his career is going no where and now this murder makes him looks like a fool. But no sooner has he begun his his investigation, when he gets orders from above to leave the case alone for fear that it might harm the delicate negotiations that are taking place around the Reversion. Dropping the investigation, however, goes against everything Landsman believes and as he proceeds he must contend with the forces of evil and obsession and the powers of faith and salvation that are a part of his religious heritage. This is a complicated, highly entertaining, whodunit that, as one reviewer noted, “only Chabon could write.”
Finally, if you would like to take a deep dive and read a series of books that are set in modern Alaska the Kate Shugak series written by Dana Stabenow is a good place to begin. Stabenow is a prolific writer who won the Edgar Award for this series which is currently comprised of 20 books featuring the reluctant part time detective Kate Shugak and in addition has written several other series featuring other lead characters. Starting with A Cold Day for Murder and ending with her most recent release, Bad Blood, Kate Shugak is often called in by the DA’s office as an investigator. Kate is an Aleut, who left her small village to pursue her education and a career outside of “The Park,” that vast and sprawling hinterland of Alaska, and thus her skills and knowledge of the place and the people there are often invaluable in bringing wrong doers to justice.
I hope that you will find something enjoyable to read among the books I have recommended in these two posts. Let me know what you are reading and who knows, maybe a book club will form while we are on our cruise!