Smith likes to test his heroes against harsh environments--a lady cop patrolling mean streets (Daydreams, 1981); a college professor cast into prison (Stone City, 1988). Now, in a haunting drama of redemption, he plumbs the courage of an Alaskan homesteader as she drifts from a cruel wilderness to an equally pitiless metropolis. Sarah Maher's courage is very much in doubt. Some months back, we learn in a brutal flashback, her husband, Alan, was eaten by a grizzly bear while she cowered in hiding. Now, plagued by self-doubt, Sarah, ""plain"" and nearing 40, is returning ""Outside""--to Seattle to visit her younger sister and ailing mom. Dog-sledding through an implacably cold landscape, she stops at an Indian town--an oasis of heat, color, and rich smells--where she sells her trapped furs, says goodbye to her friends and beloved dogs, and arranges for a young male Indian to sled her to the nearest airport, several days' away. During the trek, she and the Indian have sex--Sarah's first since Alan's death, and another burst of warmth in her frozen life. Two plane flights later, Sarah's in Seattle, rooming with her divorced sister, awkwardly trying to readjust to city life--soft beds, stuffy rooms, noise, pollution. But Sarah's crucial confrontation with civilization--and herself--comes by way of her cancer-stricken mother, racked with pain but kept alive by modern medicine. By summoning the courage to deal with her mother in the same unsentimental way that she'd handle a wounded animal, Sarah finds a way to return north--and to live with herself, with the baby growing in her womb, and even with the bear that killed Alan. Smith's dramatic scaffolding sticks out--Sarah's return north is as inevitable as her contrived reencounter with the bear--but the hard beauty of Alaska shines through it, and marvelous Sarah walks it with an honesty and grit that make her unforgettable.