By Georgia Edwards | Contributor
The late 19th century Alaskan wilderness is the setting for Eowyn Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. Based on an actual army expedition led by Lt. Henry T. Allen in 1885, it is the story of Col. Allen Forrester’s foray into one of the United States’ last frontiers. Accompanied by a motley team of soldiers, Native Americans and trappers, Forrester is charged with mapping out the uncharted and harsh environs of the Wolverine River and its surroundings.
Defying the traditional role of women and wives in 1885 America, Forrester’s plucky new bride, Sophie, was to join the expedition until she learned she was pregnant. In separate but parallel journeys, Forrester will set off from his Vancouver starting point while Sophie stays behind at the army barracks. The couple’s stories are told through a creative combination of formats: personal and army journals, newspaper articles, contemporary correspondence between museum curators, maps, diagrams and photographs.
The novel alternates between the hardships of Forrester’s expedition and Sophie’s life back at the fort. Forrester confronts the realities of the unforgiving Alaskan Territory—cold, snowstorms, scarce food supplies, suspicious natives—even a mysterious river beast. A former Apache fighter, he finds a gentler version of himself—a man who is continually awed by the scope and spirituality of this raw new landscape.
To fill the time away from her husband, the intrepid Sophie studies the physiology of pregnancy and takes up photography. In an era where women were expected to know their place and limits, she admirably pursues her “wicked” interests in spite of fort gossip. While her husband is breaking new territory in Alaska, Sophie is breaking some boundaries back home.
By interweaving reality with spirituality, Ivey has also written a story of undiscovered realms beyond human knowledge. Her descriptions of the Alaskan landscape—its glaciers, rivers and mountains—are elegaic and breathtaking. Lending magic to this backdrop are characters from Native American lore: a raven that becomes a shaman, a husband who changes into an adulterous otter, and a baby who is born through the roots of a tree.
Wilderness and survival adventure, an enduring love story, myth and mysticism—all are contained in this stunning work of prose.
Ivey is a native Alaskan and well-poised to write about her state. Her first book, The Snow Child, also takes place in Alaska and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.