Part quest, part rebirth, Heacox’s debut novel spins a story of Alaska’s Tlingit people and the land, an old man dying, and a young man learning to live.
In the town of Jinkaat, off Icy Strait near Crystal Bay, Old Keb Wisting, 95, all "big ears, small bladder, bad teeth" but diamond-clear in soul, wants to bring meaning to the life of his grandson James, “prisoner of angr” a deeply felt grief. Basketball wizard James ruined his knee in a logging accident, and Old Keb decides that the two of them will carve a cedar canoe. Canoe completed—christened Óoxjaa Yadéi, or Against the Wind—Keb, with James and two friends, begins a spirit journey to Crystal Bay, heartland of the Tlingit people. Heacox’s characters resonate, each immersed in the Pacific Northwest’s great watery woods. Old Keb, part Norwegian, part Tlingit, is the last of the Tlingit cedar carvers. There’s also James’ mother, Gracie, who “could bend [Keb] with a smile.” Keb’s “kittiwake daughter,” Ruby, is a professor, all pride and passion. Little Mac, James’ Chinese-Tlingit-Scots girlfriend, has a tiny body, towering intellect, and tremendous empathy. Large Marge, “a wide-hipped buxomed fisherwoman,” captains the Silverbow with two deaf sons. Keb’s dead uncle Austin speaks in dreams as Raven, the trickster. Add politicians, bureaucrats, media types, all circling, making demands, as Keb and the others set out for Crystal Bay, now a federal reserve and a place mired in conflict with the development interests of PacAlaska, a Native American corporation. It’s Heacox’s language, however, and his deep appreciation of the land, the sea, and the Tlingit, “a liquid people,” that illuminate the story, one with an ending logical and unsentimental yet emotionally satisfying.
Old Keb understands it “used to be hard to live and easy to die. Not anymore.”