By Eowyn Ivey
Little, Brown and Company (August 2, 2016)
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
To the Bright Edge of the World is Eowyn Ivey’s highly-anticipated second novel, another story set in the rugged and breathtaking expanse that is Alaska. Her debut, The Snow Child, was the tale of a pioneering, childless couple who build a little girl from snow and watch her magically come to life. Fans of Ivey’s touching, fairy tale first novel will find much to like in her new one, but it’s another type of story altogether.
It is 1885, and Colonel Allen Forrester has been commissioned to run a Lewis-and-Clark-type expedition up the uncharted Wolverine River through Alaska. His young wife, Sophie, had planned to accompany him on the first part of the journey but after finding out she’s expecting a child, stays behind in Vancouver. Sophie’s diary entries form one support beam of the story; the colonel’s regular reports from the expedition are another. These, along with occasional letters between the two, complete the portrait of their loving relationship. Sophie is an adventurous, introspective type and her brave, wise and older husband dotes on her completely.
In To The Bright Edge of the World, Ivey’s aspirations with form have broadened from the straightforward narrative style of The Snow Child. She includes the diaries, also letters, reports, photographs, drawings, and other artifacts, all of which give a flavor to the time-frame and setting. The second foundational aspect of the story is the correspondence between Walter Forrester, great-nephew of the Colonel, and Joshua Sloan, curator of the small museum in Alaska to which Forrester has sent the collected papers and objects from his great-uncle’s expedition. These letters give a current-time relevance to the story of Sophie and her colonel. The consequences of the historical expedition are multi-pronged and the novel is thereby propelled forward in three ways: the consequences to and future of Sophie’s marriage, the legacy of the journey, and the irreversible changes for the native peoples the Colonel and his crew encounter.
As in Ivey’s first novel, magic plays a role in this new book. Colonel Forrester’s journey is difficult in practical ways, as the men fight the elements of a harsh wilderness, but they also face mental challenges when they experience things outside their understanding. The native people of Alaska, as depicted by Ivey, have a permeable relationship with nature, often to supernatural effect. One woman describes the way she killed her husband, after watching him transform into an otter. The colonel sees a group of bathing women turn into birds, and the explorers discover a strange child who seems to have been born from a tree. In a particularly interesting narrative flourish, Ivey gives us a native shaman, a medicine man with the ability to morph into a raven, who traverses geography and time throughout this ambitious story.
The inclusion of various items—photos, drawings, excerpts from outer sources—sometimes add to the narrative but other times distracts. The first third of the book brought to mind an orchestra warming up. I liked certain aspects but felt I was struggling a bit to manage all of the separate sounds and sights. Later, I’d come to appreciate Ivey’s skill when all of these instruments came together and harmonized. To the Bright Edge of the World is an encompassing read, full of adventure and feeling, which will have you contemplating nature and history and the ways at which we arrive at truth. Ivey was raised in Alaska and if this grand place continues to inspire her fiction in books to come, it will be good thing indeed.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.