These days it's hard to imagine a time when the way to see unexplored land was to venture deep into the heart of the wilderness with no travel guide, no satellite phone and no tips from fellow travelers met online. In "To the Bright Edge of the World," Eowyn Ivey's highly anticipated follow-up to her debut novel, "The Snow Child," the late 19th-century Alaskan frontier is the setting for a physical, and spiritual, exploration of the unknown.
It is 1885 when Col. Allen Forrester takes his young bride, Sophie, to the Pacific Northwest, where they are stationed in Oregon as a starting point for Allen's upcoming exploration of the Alaska Territory. Sophie bucks tradition and plans on accompanying her new husband on his trip, but when she learns she is pregnant she must stay behind in a more conventional — read, dull — life.
So begins Sophie and Allen's parallel journeys into the unknown: Both imagine successful outcomes, but their actual experiences are much more demanding and tragic than either of them would have imagined.
Ivey incorporates photographs and drawings throughout the novel, and uses letters, journal entries, museum cards and excerpts from history books to tell her fictionalized version of the true story of Sophie and Allen Forrester. It's a popular technique these days, and it feels a little choppy at first, but in no time the reader is swept up in a multitude of story lines that ultimately flow together with the strength of the wild Wolverine River.
One of the novel's most powerful themes is the impermeability of life itself, whether it is how one is born or how one dies, whether one's expectations translate into reality, or even when applied to one's corporeal shape. While the white explorers may think they are the "first" to explore the mountains of Alaska, the native tribes are firmly entrenched in the land and have an unshakable respect for spiritual transformation.
The Colonel and his men are reminded of this fact time and again by the Man Who Flies on Black Wings — a medicine man who transforms into a raven whenever he sees fit. There is also Sophie's burgeoning interest in photography, an art that most certainly creates the feeling of illusion and the elusive nature of time.
Ivey's characters, without exception, are skillfully wrought and pull the narrative forward with little effort. She does not stoop to blanket depictions of tribal life or Victorian women, and instead has created a novel with all of the fine details that make historical fiction such an adventure to read. Fans of "The Snow Child" will not be disappointed.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.
To the Bright Edge of the World
By: Eowyn Ivey.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 417 pages, $26.