I couldn’t wait to finish this book so I could tell you about it – you’re going to love it! It’s 413 pages long, but you’re going to get through it faster than you think. It’s got everything you could want in a novel: a little bit of history and geography; a love story; a strong woman who triumphs over devastation; Alaska, maps and old-timey pictures; Native American mystery; a blossoming friendship between an old guy and a young guy; and… birds! (In case you didn’t know, I love birds!)
So let’s get started.
The book starts with a letter to Josh Sloan (the young guy, and the curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska) from Walter Forrester (the old guy) that accompanies several diaries, journals, and artifacts belonging to Walt’s great-uncle, Allen Forrester. Colonel Allen Forrester, a decorated war hero, led a company of men to travel the Wolverine River in the middle of unexplored Alaskan territory in the winter of 1885. He left behind at the Vancouver barracks his spunky wife, Sophie, who was newly pregnant with their first child. In this book we are given the privilege of reading all of Colonel Forrester’s journal entries of this expedition, Sophie’s diary entries, their letters to one another, pencil sketches of some of the sightings from the expedition, and the continuing correspondence between Walt and Josh. Also included are several concise yet significant excerpts and pictures from then-current publications that add an interesting context to the story.
A little bit of history and geography: Forrester and his men must brave extreme conditions, hunger, and dealings with Indians all along the journey. The map in the front of the book is essential, you will find yourself referring to it over and over as you follow the team’s progress. We learn how important the relationships forged between white men and Indians are, yet how wary they are of one another during this time period.
A love story: Allen and Sophie, who are by no means young newlyweds, are an amazingly sweet and real couple. Their tenderness for each other and commitment to their marriage is glimpsed in the few, but potent, letters we get to read between them.
“It is something I love very much about [Allen]. He goes not in search of obstacles, only the paths around them. Anything seems possible.” – p. 39
A strong woman: Although I would not identify myself as a feminist, I can definitely appreciate the advances and freedoms women have gained since 1885, that’s for sure! Sophie resists the social expectations of a Colonel’s wife and chooses instead to pursue her love of the outdoors, the study of birds in particular. She is ahead of her time with her open-minded acceptance of and grace for people, from the Chinese servant who is mistreated by her friend to the reticent (at first) young girl hired to help around the house. Sophie shows a strong determination to overcome a personal tragedy by teaching herself something that is not only difficult (photography) but at the time was considered a hobby for men only.
Alaska, maps, and old-timey pictures: You will see and learn about all of these; several are actual pictures from the era provided by the Alaska State Library. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the back of the book to appreciate all the research Ms. Ivey did for this book!
Native American Mystery: The further the expedition team gets up the Wolverine River, the more bizarre the encounters they have involving the land, the animals, and the natives. If you’ve read Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, you know she is quite adept at weaving the magical and mysterious into a well-spun tale.
A friendship developed between and old guy and a young guy: Who can’t learn something from observing history being shared between generations?? This was a very sweet aspect of the story.
“Beyond photographs, it gives me joy just to observe the Rufous hummingbird through field glasses, as she sits with her long, elegant beak and speckled throat. She shifts now and then, flares her tail feathers, and adjusts herself to her eggs. When the wind gusts along the river, and the cane shakes violently, she settles herself down into her nest, like a fisherman in a boat. I begin to wonder if she is unskilled at choosing her nesting sites, and if maybe earlier in the season she lost one to wind or storm. That would explain this late nest. All in all, I have much to add to my field book. “ – p. 351