I became a fan of Eowyn Ivey’s fiction after Jessica Vealitzek recommended The Snow Child at GreatNewBooks.org, which also became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. When I heard about Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, I picked it up soon after its August release. I expected a novel like The Snow Child, but from the first page, Bright Edge is clearly quite different.
The narrative of To the Bright Edge of the World unfolds in a series of letters, historical statements, newspaper clippings, photographs, and journal entries. After reading several entries and pages, I began to understand the context of the story, a fictional unfolding of the historical expedition venturing up Alaska’s Wolverine River into vast, untamed territory in 1885. The story’s letters and journal entries alternate primarily between the expedition leader, Colonel Allen Forrester, and his new wife, Sophie, who stayed at the barracks.
“Do you know the precise moment when I fell in love with you? You would probably think it was the evening of the military ball, when you first escorted me in your dress uniform … Yet what of love? That is another, more solid thing; it is not tricked by fine lights or spirits. It is more of earth and time, like a river-turned stone. It began with a walk. Do you remember? …”
The writing and language is beautiful.
In many ways, To the Bright Edge of the World is a love story between a newly married husband and wife, separated by harrowing experiences. Bright Edge is also an adventure story, both for Sophie and Allen. One traverses the difficult landscape of her inner world through tragedy; one presses through a formidable wilderness. Both are unsure if they will make it.
Ivey’s trademark magical realism surfaces throughout the book in the characters and situations Sophie and Allen encounter, both good and bad. But the force that kept me reading was the calm yet defiant voice of Sophie Forrester.
Stories about strong women always draw me in, and I count Bright Edge in my favorites shortlist. Sophie defies the whispers of the women around her in order to follow her heart — she is curious about the emerging field of photography. She converts her pantry (who needs one?) into a darkroom and stores her food on the kitchen table — permanently. And after months of effort, when she develops the first photograph which turns out as she has hoped, she is hooked.
A quote from the book about one of the whispering women when she encounters one of Sophie’s photographs:
“She studied it for a time, and then looked up from the photograph, as if taking in the house and myself for the first time. “But what of your husband? What on earth will he think of all of this?” It seemed to me a very intimate question, but for once, I knew exactly what to say: “I think he will like it very much.””
For months, Sophie and Allen write in their journals while they are apart, both with the idea that they will read their journals to each other once they are together again. But both have an acute sense that they will not survive. This is the brilliance of Bright Edge: the tension and balance of fear and fearlessness, of love and yet being true to self, of home and of adventure.
The looming fears both Allen and Sophie overcome are remarkable. Allen traverses impassible glacier-jammed rivers and crosses highest Alaskan mountains, all while starving from shortages of food. Sophie battles her struggles from within a comfortable home, while trying to stave off doubts in order for her to follow where her heart leads her.
In our less formidable world, the unknown still paralyzes us. To the Bright Edge of the World shows that in tough times when all seems lost, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep on keeping on and reach for hope, especially when it seems impossible.
*This post has gone live at GreatNewBooks.org for my quarterly book recommendation. For great book recommendations, visit GreatNewBooks.org.