As book signings go, the release party for "The Raven's Gift" in February was a smashing success. The theater at the Snow Goose was packed. Tall stacks of books steadily shriveled throughout the night. Friends and fans stood in a long queue to get their copies signed by author Don Rearden or chatted over drinks and snacks at tables. Each table had its own box of Sailor Boy pilot bread -- a rural Alaska staple that gets some attention in the book.
Phillip Blanchett, of the Yup'ik pop group Pamyua, tapped to perform for the event, looked around and remarked, "It's like half of Bethel is here."
Rearden has achieved something that most Alaska authors have not. He's gotten a major company to publish his book. It's received positive comments and sales are respectable.
But you might have a hard time getting it here in Rearden's home state.
"I hear from friends all the time who say they can't get it in stores," he said.
That's because the publishing business operates on principles of turf and distribution that have nothing to do with literary quality or even reader interest.
"Alaska is Penguin Group USA's territory," Rearden says.
But "Raven's Gift" is published by Penguin Canada.
The Montana-born author -- no relation to Jim Rearden of Homer, author of "Castner's Cuthroats," or to Rearden's granddaughter, Alice Rearden, the Yup'ik scholar and translator who has collaborated in prominent cultural texts -- moved to lower Kuskokwim while he was a child. His father was in law enforcement, his mother was a teacher. He lived in Akiak and Kasigluk before going to Bethel, where he graduated from high school in 1993.
He majored in English and history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, then returned to Bethel, where he became a teacher himself.
In 2002, he came to Anchorage to earn his master's degree at University of Alaska Anchorage, where he now teaches writing. He and his wife, Annette, are expecting their first baby.
As a kid growing up in the Bush, he loved reading, he said. "Louis L'Amour, Jack London. I was reading Stephen King at a much younger age than I probably should have been."
His imagination was also stirred by the oral literature he encountered in the villages. "There's nothing like being surrounded by a culture where stories are so important," he said. "In Akiak, we could see the old, deserted town on the other side of the river. It was easy to believe in ghosts."
An agent showed his graduate thesis to publishers. "They liked it, but said it was too short," Rearden said. "But at least they were interested, and that gave me hope."
In 2009 he wrote his full-length novel "Raven's Gift."
The story revolves around a baffling epidemic that wipes out the population of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. A teacher, blind girl and old woman who have somehow survived make a desperate march across the tundra in winter, pursued by a mysterious white hunter, hoping to find help and a group of children that they suspect have also escaped the plague while avoiding other survivors who have become cannibals.
Alaska readers will sense that "Raven's Gift" is by an author deeply familiar with the Bush. Even while describing an apocalypse, Rearden presents faithful reflection of the region -- foods, housing, lifestyles, speech patterns, pleasures and perils.
The story had its genesis in snippets of stories Rearden heard about the epidemics of a century ago, when entire villages were wiped out.
"Then the bird flu scare came up. And here we are next to America's biggest wild bird refuge. Everyone has birds hanging around their house. I began thinking, we're so reliant on the outside world now -- what happens if that gets cut off?"
In the novel, madness is what happens.
His agent presented the book to the big houses: Thomas Dunn, Houghton Mifflin, HarperCollins and Penguin USA.
The first layer of editors, at least, loved the story, Rearden says. But it coincided with the recession and financial decline in the publishing world. Some announced they were no longer accepting fiction. The stark tale of chaos, cold, despair and death didn't help. One editor told him "No one's going to want to read a book like that in this economy."
So when the Canadian arm of the international Penguin company made an offer, he jumped on it. They published the book in what Rearden jokingly calls "the Canadian translation," with British spellings like "favourite."
"But Canada's neat. They appreciate literary fiction. Walking into a store and seeing stacks of my books is a thrill for a kid from the tundra."
MARKETING FRUSTRATIONSGetting those stacks to Alaska or the Lower 48 has been frustrating, however. And despite glowing comments from other authors ("A read that opens our eyes and finds the fault lines of a heart in one breathless sitting," Jodi Picoult; "A page turner with a message," Bill Streever; "An epic adventure, never to be forgotten," Daniel Quinn), significant critical reviews of Canadian books are rare in the American press.
Rearden is now working on a second book, also set in the bush. "It's about a village that is moving," he said. "It's a little lighter, less dark, a lot more characters."
But it won't answer some of the tantalizing questions left at the end of "Raven's Gift." Has the disease struck the rest of the world with equal force, or is rural Alaska unique, cut off from the world by a government quarantine? Why did some survive? Who is the white hunter? Will the teacher and the blind girl -- actually a young woman -- spark up a romance?
"In my head there's a sequel," Rearden said. "I don't know if I'll ever write it down."
An editor from Simon & Schuster is looking at the book, Rearden said. If an American house picks it up, things could change.
Meanwhile, unless you can drive to Whitehorse, the best bet is to go to Rearden's website, www.donrearden.com. Some copies can be found at the UAA bookstore and Fireside Books in Palmer. He has a reading set for April 2 at Fireside, where "Raven's Gift" has become their best-selling Alaska book, and another at UAA on April 13.
He's also looking forward to a signing during Bethel's big Cama-i Dance Festival March 25-27 -- partly because he might sell a few copies, but mostly because it will let him see family members and old friends.
"Bethel's still home," he said.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM