The Ocean in My Ears
In Meagan Macvie's debut novel for young adults, Meri Miller is a 17-year-old Soldotna girl who can't wait to get out of town and start her life. "Boring Slowdotna," she tells us, is known for two things: salmon fishing and the highest teen birthrate in the country. "Alaska's like two thousand miles away from anywhere cultured. No offense, Canada."
The novel, told in Meri's voice and punctuated with diary excerpts and letters, takes us through a year in her life, from the summer before her senior year of high school to the next summer. Readers accompany Meri through her teenage troubles — with parents, best friend, boyfriends and the usual insecurities of that age.
The time period is 1990 and 1991, which, for today's young readers, would place it as "historical fiction." No cell phones, no social media. The teens meet up at the local Dairy Queen, listen to mixtapes, go to movies, and lie to their parents about going to movies when they actually go to drinking parties.
Meri has been raised in a religious family with a father who works as a welder on the Slope and at home spends his time tinkering in the garage or watching television. Her mother insists on church multiple times per week and her younger brother's mainly an annoyance. Meri has a part-time job at a clothing store, a Volkswagen Beetle with the freedom that assures, and a resistance to religious sermonizing about God's holy temple. At 17, she is both peculiarly innocent and unsettlingly reckless. For one thing, she has a tendency to say sexually suggestive things — what she calls "double entendres."
So when she meets an older boy-man (from Kenai) at the local hang-out and hops into his Bronco, you know she's headed for trouble.
"I can't believe this older guy is interested in me. His attention is intoxicating, as if the girl he sees isn't some small-town, high-school girl. Reflected in Brett's unwavering gaze, I become uncommon and fascinating and worth pursuing."
As Alaskans know, our state has a very high rate of sexual and domestic abuse, if not, perhaps, the highest teen birth rate, as Meri claims. "The Ocean in My Ears" brings the reality of this to readers in a way that stacks of reports never can. Here, we come to understand how a teenager's self-doubts and desires to be liked and loved can lead to being victimized — perhaps for an entire adult life.
When the man insists on calling "his girl" "babe," goes into jealous rages, and shows himself to be a classic misogynist, readers — if not our protagonist — can see the danger. Teenage readers — the book is recommended for ages 14 to adult — will find some life lessons here. Older readers may relive some of the horrors of their pasts and remember how critical a trusted adult can be in a young person's life.
One feature of young adult novels, which makes them attractive for many older readers, is that they end happily. It will not be giving anything away to say that Meri eventually makes some good decisions and heads into a bright future.
Readers will see right from the start that the book's trajectory is through a year of trials and that Meri is destined to triumph. The obstacles in her journey include the absences of both parents (the mother must leave the state to care for her mother), the death of her beloved grandmother, a serious accident for the brother, a best friend who abandons her for a boyfriend (and is living a dangerous life of her own), and Meri's own hesitations about befriending a boy from an immigrant family living in a trailer court.
Soldotna, as a place rendered in fiction, is treated with both affection and derision. There's a lovely scene in which Meri seeks out a bench above the Kenai River to listen to the wind and water (the titular "ocean in my ears") and think about her next moves. "My future is as distant and mysterious as the faraway ocean. But if salmon can find their way out there, I can, too."
There's another scene of dipnetting that captures some of that crowded chaos and beach littered with fish guts. Here Meri gets to compare her boyfriend's oafishness with another way of being. (In reality, personal use dipnetting didn't begin until 2003, but the scene serves this fiction well.)
Otherwise, Soldotna is treated as a complete backwater, an Appalachia of the north, with similar stereotypes. Fast-food joints, dirt roads, nothing to do and no ambition to leave. As Meri notes one night at a party with an "older than high-school" group, "People are mostly standing around talking and drinking. But then, what else is there to do after high school? You go to some lame job every weekday, watch television, or go to house parties on weekends; and if you're lucky, someone's there with you so you're not alone in your tiny, boring life."
The author, not surprising, grew up in Soldotna. Meagan Macvie currently lives in the Pacific Northwest but will be in Alaska Dec. 15-22 on a book tour sponsored by 49 Writers with support from the Alaska Humanities Forum.
In Anchorage, she'll be presenting a writing workshop called "I'm Just Being Myselfie: How Young Narrators Come Alive on the Page (Without Seeming Like Posers)" and a reading and craft talk called "Writing From a Big, Small Place." She'll also be visiting Palmer, Cooper Landing, Seward, and Soldotna. For details, see 49writers.org.