Colors of the Morning Sky
By Eric Forrer, illustrated by Lue K. Isaac. McRoy & Blackburn, Publishers, 84 pages, 2017. $25
McRoy & Blackburn, Publishers, located in Ester, has published nothing but Alaska fiction for a quarter century now. One of the many small regional presses in America that focus on small niches in the book market, the company fills the void that exists in Alaskan fiction between self-published dreck and high-end literary novels. They seek out works that offer insight on Alaska from an Alaska perspective. They've published a number of worthy titles, but their latest, "Colors of the Morning Sky," is easily their best.
Set in Southeast Alaska, this novella, wonderfully told by Juneau resident Eric Forrer and beautifully illustrated by Seattle-based artist Lue K. Isaac, brings us the story of an aging fisherman known as the Captain whose private world is upset by his rescue of three young women capsized in a rowboat in Icy Strait. The women are members of a popular rock band, and being their savior brings the Captain a bit of national renown as well as the painful recognition that being an old man means being a young man caught in a body that can't possibly fulfill the wishes of a not-yet-extinguished libido.
Before arriving at the main plot of the story, however, Forrer spends half the book simply setting the stage, and he does so with a vividness that fully captures the dark, wet, forested, isolated and all-too-often obscured majesty of Southeast Alaska.
Writing in the first person, Forrer's Captain tells us that "Southeast Alaska is a country that is all islands and channels, nooks and crannies, bits and pieces … Winter snows come from the north, summer rains come from the south, clear skies and sunshine come from the west. Nothing at all worth talking about comes from the east, which is mostly a source of lousy weather, bad rumors and dismal politics. The islands of the country are covered with a dark green forest. It is a masterpiece of tangles and open meadows, huge trees that sweep the sky and low brush that guards the paths and hides the animals. The forest sweeps over the cliffs and ridges, rolls up the valleys and stands right down to the very edge of the salt water. It presides like a sentinel over the land."
It is a land apart, not even seeing itself a part of Alaska, although the state's government convenes there.
The Captain tells his story of growing up in a remote fishing village without a clear idea of his own ancestry. A totem pole he stumbles upon as a young boy offers more of a past than his parents, though it isn't his past.
With no secondary school in his village, the Captain moves to Juneau for junior high and high school while his father for the most part moves out of his life. He quits school and becomes a fisherman because that is what is on offer. He also becomes an avid reader, an avocation that connects him to the world beyond but robs him of ever being fully at home in the place he dwells. "I developed the habit over the years of having arguments with God," he tells us on page two. And so he will.
In keeping with McRoy and Blackburn's goal of offering stories that tell us about Alaska, Forrer's long rambling account of the Captain's early days as a fisherman lends insight into the nature of that work. The Captain also reminisces about Juneau in the days when it was still a working class town, where making room for minor vices such as an unopposed prostitution district helped maintain social stability. This part of the book, as well as the earlier passages about the Captain's childhood village, bring to life a Southeast Alaska now entirely gone thanks to moral guardians and the arrival of television and the internet.
The Captain eventually buys a long-liner fishing vessel named Raven Walks and hires a crew of two. One is a gentle behemoth of a man dubbed Babe the Blue Ox, the other George, who proves to be gay, and who in the world of fishermen where everyone has a nickname, becomes Gloria. Owing partly to his considerable skills, however, he is fully accepted as one of the trio of semi-outcasts. He pulls more than his weight, a far more important trait than his sexuality.
The three are out in Icy Strait in September when they spot the three women and retrieve them from the water and certain death. The richly detailed rescue scene is tense, but Forrer doesn't overdo it. He's a skilled minimalist with his writing. Every detail counts and nothing extraneous is added.
The women make up a rock band named Little Eva, also the name of the lead singer, and when the Captain goes to visit them in the hospital, he can't help but be smitten. The remainder of the book follows the friendship that emerges from this unexpected incident, and the Captain's need to confront his age – well past 70 – and the impossibility of acting on feelings that the young man inside him can't suppress. It's a story of the inevitable loss that accompanies age.
A word must be added for Isaac's artwork, which is scattered throughout this book. She's spent considerable time in the north, and her oil paintings perfectly evoke the damp pastels of Southeast Alaska. Elsewhere, her pen and watercolor depictions of action scenes are lively, while her conté drawings of the women capture the contours of the human body. Her skills are diverse and impressive.
The book itself is handsomely laid out on large pages with quality paper. Its assembly matches the excellence of the writing and art and welcomes the reader to spend time with it. This fusion of place-based writing and art is the sort of thing a small regional publisher like McRoy & Blackburn is perfectly suited for. A handmade in Alaska book that reminds us of how this place we live in forms the people we are.