I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.
My expectations were high, because this is the second novel by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey, whose first novel, The Snow Child, had me very nearly lost for words. I remember reading it when it was shiny and new, and being delighted when ‘my’ book went on to be a huge success, much loved and much lauded.
I was thrilled when a copy of this second book, a rather bigger book, arrived. When I examined it more closely I saw that it had elements in common with the first book, but it also had a great deal to make it different and distinctive. And to make it a real progression for the author.
At the centre of this story, set in Alaska at the end of the 19th century is a husband and wife.
Sophie was a young teacher, in love with the natural world, when she met Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester. He was intrigued by the young woman who was completely unflustered when she was caught up a tree; and she was captivated when he took the time and trouble to find and lead her to the nest of a hummingbird. I was very taken with them both as individuals, and I loved them as a couple.
I have found many things to love in this novel, but it was this marriage that I loved most of all.
Early in that marriage the Colonel was tasked with leading a small team on an expedition into territory that was unmapped and unexplored by white settlers. Sophie hoped to follow him to Alaska, but she was obliged to settle at barracks, as far from her family as she would be from her husband. The story is told through the journals that they keep while they are apart.
The two narrative voices are wonderfully vivid and real, and I was pulled right into both stories. I lived through a journey through country that was beautiful but full of danger; and though dull days at barracks that were made interesting by the company I was keeping. When I put the book down I kept thinking about the things that concerned my two protagonists, as if they were people I knew. And there where times, when I was reading the words of one, that I found myself reading from the perspective of the others.
When I stood back a little I appreciated learning about history I had thought of little before; a time when territory was sold from Russia to America, over the heads of its native population. I appreciated how well the author threaded the same images and themes through each journal, and who naturally many of those things repeated through the book.
I’m trying not to mention specifics – its much to early in this book’s life for that, and you must read them first-hand – but there are so many lovely details, so many different emotions to feel as you follow the progress of these two lives.
The story moves slowly, but there was always something that was vivid and real to hold my attention: an image, an event, an idea, a description, an emotion ….
The raven, portrayed on the cover, is very significant to the story. It’s the story of a woman ahead of her time and a man who respects the past but looks to the future. It’s a story underpinned by folklore; that feels natural and right, maybe because those old stories came from that country where the small native population accepted that nature and tradition should hold sway, where things were very different.
That 19th century story is framed with contemporary letters between Walter Forrester, the Allen Forrester’s great-nephew, who is coming towards the end of his life and wishes to gift the writings, and the various artefacts from the journey to the Alpine Historical Museum; and Joshua Sloan, the exhibits curator of that museum.
I though I might resent being drawn out of the story of Sophie and her Colonel, but I didn’t at all. I loved watching a friendship grow between two very different men, I loved that they felt the same way about the history that I did; and their story provided a wonderful context for the past human drama and for the history of their country.
There are so many things I could say; they are as many things that I can’t quite put into words; but whatever I say I know that I won’t be able to do this extraordinary novel justice.
I can see that the author loved the people, the history and the county she wrote about; that she must have taken such trouble to research so many things, to make the people in her story, and everything about them, live and breathe, and to create a novel that is complex and detailed and yet utterly accessible.
This is fiction, inspired by history, and I can’t quite believe it’s not real.
I didn’t want to let go, but I know that this book will stay with me, and that I will visit it again.