Rough Crossing: An Alaskan Fisherwoman's Memoir
By Rosemary McGuire; University of New Mexico Press; 2017; 187 pages; $19.95 paperback
Rosemary McGuire, who grew up in Interior Alaska and Haines before receiving a master's degree in writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has done it again. She's written a beautiful book related to the rough life of Alaska fishermen, this time as a personal, introspective story.
When McGuire's first book, short stories titled "The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea," came out in 2015, reviewer David James noted on these pages that, while the fiction collection was "dark work for certain, the majesty of Alaska and the minutiae of crumbling hopes play against each other, all of it delivered with taut, well-controlled prose …"
Her new book, selected by Andre Dubus III as the winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Prize, similarly draws upon her years in the fishing industry. This time, it's a coming-of-age story, a memoir of her first season commercial fishing. Starting in a cold spring with gray cod in Homer, she proceeded to salmon tendering in Prince William Sound and ended up salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. She made no money at any of it, while meeting a whole raft of crude and abusive men — and maybe a few who were not.
The writing is well-crafted and lyrical, a joy to read. She delivers lively scenes in all their beauty and brutality, showing what it is to have a heart for the former and a stomach for the latter.
Ishmael of her time?
It's perhaps not too far a stretch to consider McGuire an Ishmael of her time and place. At the start, "I was nearly out of money, and, more than that, I wanted to go, to see the ocean as I had imagined it. I wanted sea and wind and stories, adventure, dawns, and the raw clean smell of far-from-land. I did not want to wonder what the world was like, but to touch it, taste it, feel and see it."
She was, in short, at age 23, looking for a place in the world and a life that was beyond what was expected for a young woman. A hard worker, she was determined to learn new skills and to prove herself in what was traditionally a testosterone-filled environment. And to embrace and love the big, wild ocean.
On the less romantic side, here's cod fishing, on her first trip: "There was only the mindless, dizzying, almost pointless, and brutal work and our own clumsy bodies and frozen hands. The waves kept coming; the pots kept coming."
As McGuire says toward the end of the book, in an answer to another fisherman's question about the kind of boat she first worked on, "It was the kind of boat you end up on if you don't know s—."
Bad behavior, extreme sexism
It would be unfortunate if readers believed that the fishermen and boats McGuire portrays in her memoir, true to her personal experience, were representative of the Alaska fleet. When a person — male or female — shows up on a dock and has never fished or been on the ocean before, that person is not going to hire on to a high-liner. That person will end up on a boat that no one else will work on.
Not every fisherman in Alaska is a drunk and not every boat captain is looking for a girlfriend, but it seems as though every man in McGuire's story has multiple social deficits along with alcohol problems. The dangerous operations, bad behavior, and extreme sexism that McGuire faced were things she survived — and grew stronger and wiser from experiencing. But they are not the norm in a competitive industry where sobriety and smart business skills are necessary for success.
McGuire never tells readers exactly when her first season took place, but a sharp reader can pick up references to events and calculate that the year was 2000. Well before 2000, the Alaska fishing industry included a great many women as both crew and captains, and it's too bad that McGuire seemed to only encounter troglodyte men who thought that women didn't belong on boats. When she did get crew jobs, she was always expected to make coffee, prepare meals and clean up the man-messes in addition to working on deck.
"Rough Crossing" works both literally and metaphorically here. Traversing a channel in Prince William Sound on the way to pick up the season's first king salmon, the tender captain shows McGuire how to use the GPS and the depth sounder.
"There's a bunch of bars between us still, but it can get crazy rough crossing in and out right here," he tells her. "You can get the whole weight of the Pacific thrusting up into shallow water." Soon enough, the boat is in breakers, with "flashes of bare sand" showing between them. By the end of the book, the author has made multiple "rough crossings" — not only on the water but from her old life into her chosen one.
In an epilogue, we learn that McGuire married and fished with her husband out of Cordova, then divorced and fished her own boat, alone, on the Copper River Flats. She fished for about 15 years altogether.
Today, McGuire still works with boats, splitting her years between the Arctic (as a research technician) and the Antarctic (as a boat manager and driver.) Let's hope she continues to find time to work her writer's magic, in fiction or nonfiction or wherever her drive and imagination take her.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming." Her new novel "pH" is due in September.