To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

I recently read ‘The Snow Child’ for the second time (and yes, I will write a review at some stage).  A friend mentioned that ‘To the Bright Edge of the World’ had recently been published and thus ensured that my reading attention was immediately  redirected.  What can I say about this novel?  Aspects of it haunt me, while Ms Ivey has filled my mind with images of Alaska. There are a number of different stories in this novel, each worth reading and worth considering.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

‘I’ll tell you one thing about history – we leave a lot of carnage in our wake.’

Alaska, 1885.  Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester receives a commission to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River.  The river has resisted previous attempts to explore it.  Will Lieutenant Colonel Forrester, with a small group of man and relying on Indian assistance, be successful?  Lieutenant Colonel Forrester’s wife, Sophie, pregnant with their first child, must stay behind at the Vancouver Barracks in the Washington Territory.

Over six parts, with headings tied to articles which are important in the telling of the story and shifting between detailed diaries kept by each of the Forresters, the story of their separate journeys unfolds.  Lieutenant Colonel Forrester’s journey involves a number of different challenges, some of which are difficult to understand rationally.  But they are travelling in country where their experiences are shaped by hardship, by environmental factors, and by indigenous beliefs.  Back at the Vancouver Barracks, Sophie Forrester has to deal with military hierarchy and conventional expectations.  She suffers disappointment, but later discovers a passion for photography.

While the Forrester’s nineteenth experiences unfold, there is also some present day correspondence.  Walt Forrester is Lieutenant Colonel Forrester’s great-nephew, and he is looking to pass the remains of the Forrester’s papers to the Alpine Historical Museum.  He corresponds with the exhibits curator, Josh Sloan, and their correspondence serves to make connections between past and present, to provide some sense of present day consequences.  It’s a technique which I think works very well for this story.

‘I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Colonel had never travelled up the Wolverine River, had never broken the trail for the miners and all that came with them.’

I really enjoyed this novel: its blend of exploration and its consequences, of possible coincidence or supernatural events, of lives now past all had an impact.  Ms Ivey is an accomplished story teller, and her descriptions of the Alaskan landscapes are superb.

In the Acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Ms Ivey writes that ‘This novel was very much inspired by the real-life 1885 journey into Alaska led by Lieutenant Henry T. Allen.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith