The Alaskan Laundry
By Brendan Jones; Mariner Books; 387 pages; 2016; $14.95
"The Alaskan Laundry" opens with a scene that will resonate with many Alaskans. Tara Marconi arrives in the state by ferry, young, broke, escaping a life that had become unbearable and with few plans beyond a season of work and the hope of pocketing some money.
Alaska has a way of taking hold of such people. They wash up on our shores with no place else to go, looking for salvation unattainable elsewhere in the country. We've all met them, if in fact we were not ourselves such detritus once. It's a human condition unique to this state, one that Tara describes to a kindly fishing boat captain in the latter part of the book:
"I've got this friend Newt … He has this idea that the state's on one continuous wash cycle. The Alaskan laundry. That's what he calls it. Everyone coming north to get clean of their past."
Brendan Jones, the author of this remarkable debut novel, lives in Sitka and has set his tale in a fictionalized version of that town called Port Anna. It's a story of well-crafted characters, entirely believable drama and redemption through excruciatingly hard labor.
In Tara, Jones offers a young lady born to Italian immigrants in Philadelphia who flees north from a couple of traumatic experiences that will slowly be revealed. She arrives in the fall of 1997 to take a job in a hatchery. Initially we learn that her mother has recently died, her father has banished her from his house, and that she's abruptly left behind a caring boyfriend named Connor in New York City; she could not bring herself to expose her deepest pain to him.
Tara is picked up at the dock by Fritz, the hard-driving boss of the hatchery, and is immediately thrust into a world where life boils down to relentless and often-boring work on a thin edge between wilderness and the sea. She's from the city, but not entirely green. Having grown up working in her immigrant parents' bakery, she's used to pulling her weight. Furthermore, she's a boxer. There are lessons to be learned, but she won't allow herself to be exploited.
The plot, which plays out over a period of two years, follows Tara as she slowly builds a new life in Alaska's notoriously rough fishing industry. Tara works her way from the hatchery to a processor, then out to sea to fish, culminating on a crabbing vessel in the Bering Sea. At each step she has to prove herself to her skippers, her shipmates and herself.
Jones perfectly evokes the culture of Southeast Alaska and those working in fisheries. As the months and years of his story progress, characters come and go as would be expected where employment is seasonal, jobs take people away for extended times and some simply depart, never to return.
Like so many newcomers, Tara herself drifts from one job to the next, and also through a series of make-do housing arrangements including a tiny apartment, a bunk house, aboard various boats and camping in the woods with other wayward souls. Many she throws in with along the way are as lost as she is, and not all are trustworthy. Her boxing skills come in handy more than once.
Her best friend proves to be a scrawny fisherman named Newt who, other than Tara, proves to be the most sympathetic character Jones creates. A born scrapper, he's determined to raise enough money to bring his girlfriend and her baby north to settle. At first, he seems to be one of those people who come to the end of the world and teeter on the brink of falling off. Alaska can be a place where such people thrive, however. A hard worker and a loyal friend, he becomes Tara's protector, but not one who hovers over her. He recognizes a kindred spirit and doesn't interfere. He simply watches her back.
Another key figure is a middle-aged Tlingit man named Betteryear who takes her in and teaches her about the bounty of the land and sea around Port Anna. Their relationship is rocky, and the divide between them is a reminder for Tara that she comes from a very different world, one that she can never fully leave behind.
The life she fled remains ever present, in fact, through Tara's continued correspondence with Connor. As the book is set in the final years before everyone obtained an email account, their communications are through letters, sometimes lengthy, as they work out their relationship and Tara comes to terms with her past. In another touch that many Alaskans will immediately grasp, Connor's stories of his life in New York City seem claustrophobic compared to the immense world surrounding the tiny town of Port Anna.
Central to the story is a quest that drives Tara's efforts. Almost immediately upon arrival, she spies an aging, broken-down tugboat from World War II tied off in Port Anna's harbor and quickly determines that she must own it. Her hopes and labors become focused on this goal, but in the chaotic world she has thrown herself into, dreams are hard-won. As Tara grows into her adopted environment, she finds that "women in Alaska carried themselves differently from women down south. As if each of them had passed through a ring of fire before coming out the other side, flame-tested and hardened. The slag of the past burned off, cooling in the salt air, charting their own course."
Jones has captured what Alaska has long been for so many people: a last and best chance to remake their lives and become what they could never have been any place else. It may be fiction, but the story he tells is real.