A husband and wife explore separate but parallel frontiers in the wild Northwest of the late 1800s.
Ivey’s superb second novel (The Snow Child, 2012) is mainly composed of two braided journals. One is by Allen, an Army colonel who fought Apaches in Arizona in the 1860s but by 1885 has a gentler temperament and wants to explore the Wolverine River in southern Alaska. The other is by his wife, Sophie, who’d be eager to join him if it weren’t for know-your-place lectures from fellow Army wives. Allen and his small band endure a host of familiar travails—scarce food and ammunition, bad weather, skeptical natives. But his secret, unofficial diary also includes more surrealistic experiences, like a discovered newborn baby whose umbilical cord is connected to a tree root. Back at the Army barracks, Sophie discovers she’s pregnant but soon miscarries—most likely due to the opium tinctures prescribed by her condescending doctor—and discovers photography as a way to navigate through her grief. Ivey means to say that Allen and Sophie are equally pioneering to the extent that society of the time allowed them to be, but first and foremost this is an exceptionally well-turned adventure tale, rich with Allen’s confrontations with brutal snowstorms and murky underwater beasts and Sophie’s more interior efforts to learn her craft and elbow local busybodies out of her way. Brief, poetic entries and sketches by a member of Allen’s cohort give the story a series of lyrical grace notes, and Ivey anchors the tale in present-day correspondence between Allen’s great-nephew and the curator of a museum to whom he’s sent Allen’s journals. Those letters make an elegant and affecting argument that though the territory is tamer now, not everything that makes it spiritually inspiring has been thawed out and paved over.
Heartfelt, rip-snorting storytelling.