To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
I fell in love with Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, and its many mystical qualities and themes of love, loss, and her vivid appreciation of the Alaskan terrain. To the Bright Edge of the World is quite different from Ivey’s first novel but once again, I was drawn in by her ability to capture the reader within the first few pages.
The novel is written entirely in the form of letters and journal entries. Beginning in what we can assume is the present tense with a letter to a museum curator who collects artifacts for the Alpine Historical Museum, Ivey sets out to take the reader along on an Alaskan expedition that took place 1885. She writes,
The Colonel’s journey was a harrowing one. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning, but I don’t see as to how that takes away from its importance. His expedition is surely the Alaskan equivalent of Lewis and Clark’s, and these papers are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands and natives. (3)
We then begin to follow Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester through his diary entries as he embarks to explore the uncharted territory of Alaska on March 21, 1885. Forrester and meager crew set out from Perkins Island, Alaska with the goal of reaching Norton Sound before winter. Meanwhile, Forrester’s new bride, Sophie, living in the Vancouver Barracks, keeps her own diary while waiting for her husband’s return.
I think the novel gives equal service to Col. Forrester and Sophie. Not only does Ivey share the hardships and perils of the Colonel’s journey, but also Sophie’s longing for her husband and development of her own interests during her husband’s absence. Sophie is portrayed as an independent young woman who is interested in birds and botany. Throughout the novel she develops a passion and a keen eye for photography. Thus the novel details the process of early photography and the challenges women faced in general in the 1800s if they chose to stray from commonplace female mindset of that era. Sophie had little interest in hosting teas and attending parties while wearing the latest fashion. Instead, she opted to explore the woods in search of bird nests—especially that of the elusive hummingbird. Midway through the novel Sophie writes, “I am not even sure I will know it when I see it, yet I possess in my mind a scene. The gentle warm light of early evening. A slender branch. The promise of an unbroken egg-shell; life aquiver in feather and flesh. Yet it is the light that holds my desire” (234). As a photographer who practices seeing light in different ways, I appreciated this passage and many others. The reader becomes enamored with Sophie’s goal and I found myself cheering her on in hopes that she would be successful.
Colonel Forrester’s diary details his journey across uncharted Alaskan territory and the meeting of native tribes in the Wolverine River Valley. This is where Ivey incorporates the enchanted and mystical qualities of the novel. The reader, and even Colonel Forrester, wonder if they are merely hallucinating due to hunger and poor provisions. Forrester declines to share in his Army reports of the native woman whose husband turned into an otter and now wears his pelt around her neck; or when they came upon women splashing in a river and they disappeared as a flock of geese rose up and flew out of the water; or The Man Who Flies who at one moment was a man perched in a tree bringing good luck or bad to the crew and at times even stealing their provisions, and another time was a crow visiting Sophie at the Barracks.
Throughout the novel Colonel Forrester’s great-uncle corresponds with the Alaska museum curator. In these letters Ivey touches on a variety themes including: the future of mining in Alaska, the later devastation to the native tribes brought on by the very expedition laid out by Colonel Forrester, the changes in the Alaskan territory and the Wolverine River Valley, and even the impact museums face when they lack funds and resources.
The novel ends with a newspaper clipping applauding Sophie Forrester’s work as one of the first aviary photographers and female naturalists. Ivey ties up the ending well, though possibly a little too neatly. My only wish was that I could have read the diaries of Sophie and Colonel Forrester after they were reunited at the Vancouver Barracks.
Without giving too much away, the themes of fatherhood, motherhood, loss, and tender love are currents that run through Colonel Forrester’s and Sophie’s diary entries. With this novel, Ivey continues to woo her readers with magical realism, gentle portraits of marriage, and adventure in the unforgiving terrain of Alaska.