Saturday, November 5, 2016

Book Review: "To the Bright Edge of the World" by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey is one of those rare authors whose talent shines brightly when they are capturing small, quiet moments, as well as dramatic occurrences. Her first book, The Snow Child, was an absolute wonder, and it made my list of the best books I read in 2012. In her new book, To the Bright Edge of the World, Ivey returns to her beloved Alaska and dazzles once again.

One of the things that's so remarkable about Ivey's talent is that this book is so tremendously compelling despite the fact that the two main characters are almost never together.

In 1885, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester has agreed to take on a challenging and potentially dangerous mission, to lead a small group of men up the Wolverine River and into the Alaska Territory. They're not really sure to what to expect from this expedition, but Allen is determined to find answers as to what—and whom—awaits them. He leaves behind his young pregnant wife, Sophie, who had hoped to travel with Allen at least part of the way, until she found out she was expecting.

Being stuck in the Vancouver barracks is not the type of life Sophie had in mind. Her passion for nature and wildlife, birds in particular, is out of step with most women of her time, particularly those living in the barracks. But she doesn't really seem to care. She isn't content to simply sit and gossip, or entertain women at her home (much less ensure the house is adequately clean for them). She'd much rather find an elusive hummingbird or other birds she's not familiar with.

"I told myself I would never take it for granted—the freedom to choose my own dress, to plan my days, to walk where I desired and see what I would."

Allen and his men find Alaska breathtakingly beautiful, unforgiving, baffling, and at times tremendously rewarding. Yet there appears to be at least the threat of danger around every corner, and they must contend with the weather, the tundra itself, settlements of Indians which react differently to Allen's group, the challenges of living in close proximity with each other, and some strange occurrences which don't seem as if they have any basis in reality. Allen chronicles everything in his journal, since he knows his letters may take a very long time to reach Sophie, and he views his journal as the ultimate record should their exploring fail.

For her part, Sophie also keeps a diary, chronicling her loneliness and longing for Allen, her feeling stifled by barracks life and the gossiping women around her, and the excitement she feels when she discovers photography is an outlet for both her love of nature and her independent, creative spirit. She is a woman so used to following her own course yet she'd give anything to be with her husband again, or at least get word of his condition.

Allen and Sophie's stories are told against the backdrop of correspondence between Allen's great-nephew and the curator of an Alaskan museum, which also are fascinating exchanges about cultural identity, the thirst for adventure, and both how alike and how different we are from each other.

Much like an expedition, the book started slowly but picked up steam as it progressed. Ivey's characters felt so lifelike, their struggles so real, I felt totally invested in their lives. Ivey has such a way with imagery, with emotion, that I pictured the book in my mind's eye and felt it in my heart. This is totally a keeper and it is utterly memorable.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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