“I cannot see my own words, but write as I can by moonlight as to record my first thoughts. In the morning I may deem it outlandish. For now I am slightly shaken.”
Reading this novel made me feel like an early explorer but it took a while to really bond with the characters. Sophie is a misfit in a sense, hungry to explore but stuck having to content herself with letters between she and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, because she is pregnant. For such a curious, intelligent woman stuck with her bird watching and photography when her soul hungers to conquer the unknown, it made me think about how in the 1800s such a woman would be ripe for gossip and ugliness. Women weren’t meant for such brilliance, nor to see the bright edge of the world. It’s an interesting existence being the explorer and being hungry for those experiences but left behind. The art of letter writing is said to be dead, and this novel reminded me of the romance of such correspondence. Letters have a way of revealing parts of ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise, as does distance between lovers.
The story telling through records, letters and diaries is a difficult art to master for any author, and at times I felt I was reading historical non-fiction. There are the slow moments too, but in unexplored territory in the Alaskan wilderness wouldn’t there naturally be slow times? It sets the atmosphere, the quiet dragging days and nights. Forester’s adventures are often bizarre and inexplicable, and I am a sucker for mysterious happenings. What a better place for strangeness than uncharted territory?
There is a team of men with Forrester, and the Old Man was a heck of a character. “Samuelson says the natives believe the Old Man can change the weather, make people sick or cure them, as suits his mood. Years ago, they say, he stole an Eyak’s wife & the husband shot him. The Old Man just coughed up the bullet, spat it on the ground, & went on unharmed.”
“Most of all, he says, the Old Man is unpredictable. Today he’ll rob you blind, but tomorrow he might give you a warm blanket when you need it most. ” Is he just a rascal? The pictures and clippings within the novel is why, despite a free eBook for review, I went out and bought a copy.
How could the reader not love Sophie with her bird imitations upon meeting MacGillivray? Her “churry churry churry choo’ call? I admit to being a bit of a bird stalker myself, and she won me over. It was much easier to warm to her than her husband because by comparison he is more reserved, but such was the nature of men in bygone times. How reserved could you really be at heart, plunging into unknown situations? But from his records it was fascinating thinking about the native culture. From the descriptions of their belongings “spoons formed of animal horn” to the touch of the outside world upon them I felt I was a part of the expedition. Too, I thought about how outsiders encroached upon not only an uncharted land, but upon the people too. Again, To The Bright Edge of the World reads more like non-fiction, I was reminded of a book (the title escapes me now) I read that was a non-fiction collection of women’s diary entries. One story was about an Inuit woman left to give birth alone (I can’t even imagine) in a similar place, using a seal she had to kill to feed herself and keep her newborn alive, to survive through harsh conditions. This novel felt as real as that.
“Have you ever seen the nest of a hummingbird? She would march to Kingdom Come in search of one, the Colonel says. He is bemused & clumsy in his affection.”
How does this novel manage to be a romance full of science, independent, strong characters,wild exploration and yet contain magical realism too? How it smoothly merges the past and present with the Colonel’s great nephew Walt’s decision to share his family’s legacy was charming. I am not sure how the author cooked this up but it’s a delight! When Josh, the curator, takes an interest in the family’s effects (photos, journals, letters, personal items) a friendship is birthed and he is as seduced as the reader by Colonel Allen Forrester and Sophie. Could the men even discover the true story behind the rascally mystical Old Man?
You have to read to find out. And remember it is fiction, it just feels that real that you forget.
Little, Brown and Company