“Nowhere Else to Go, but Dyea,” by Nita Nettleton. Lynn Canal Publishing, 2015. 208 pages. $14.95.
“The Dyea Convicted Felons Club,” by Nita Nettleton. Lynn Canal Publishing, 2018. 240 pages. $14.95.
It’s often said, “In fiction, only trouble is interesting.” “Madame Bovary,” “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” any number of contemporary thrillers and mystery novels — these stories are all driven forward by various troubles, conflicts, and desperate needs.
From time to time, though — perhaps especially in a time and place of real-world conflict — we might like to read stories that are of a calmer nature, showing us how it can be to love our neighbors and live in peace. Such is the work of former Alaskan Nita Nettleton in her two Skagway-related novels, “Nowhere Else to Go, but Dyea” and “The Dyea Convicted Felons Club.” The second, recently published, works as a sequel to the first, but each one can stand alone.
“Nowhere Else to Go” begins with Henry Stillwater getting off a ferry in Skagway in the wind and cold of February. We quickly learn that he’s just of out prison for a white-collar crime of financial misbehavior and has been exiled by his lawyer-daughter to a cabin in Dyea, near Skagway — a property he won in a poker game long before but has never seen. He is in his 60s, has only Social Security to live on, treats his fears with Zoloft, and has no skills that would seem to be useful in a dry cabin “at the end of an unkempt driveway in what was left of an abandoned gold rush town at the end of a fjord on the southeast coast of Alaska.”
One by one, we meet Henry’s kind new neighbors and others in the Dyea-Skagway community. The charm and fun of the book comes with the eccentricities of the various characters and the adventures they get into together. Although the characters and situations are fictitious, the area’s geography, history, and natural history are depicted in recognizable form. Alaskans will get a kick out of the small-town dynamics, and visitors will enjoy learning about the gold rush past and how people build creative lives in modern Alaska.
Here’s Henry, former financier, soon after his arrival: “Sitting in his warm cabin in Dyea on a Sunday evening in early March, listening to a documentary on lake bottom core sampling from the Alaska Public Radio Network, sipping hot chocolate and munching snickerdoodles, he reconsidered what wealth is.”
In “The Dyea Convicted Felons Club,” we learn that Henry’s group of Dyea/Skagway friends, who gather for poker, are all either criminals of one kind or another — or thought they were or might be. The rapid reintroduction of the many members of Henry’s new neighbors and associates might be confusing to a reader without the benefit of having met them in the earlier volume at a more leisurely pace, but soon enough they sort themselves out.
There’s a bit of a mystery at first, when a “parky” (park employee) appears with a metal box he’s apparently just dug up and then conveniently falls dead of a heart attack. There’s treasure in the box — what kind exactly is unclear for a while, as is what those who found and rehid the box will do about it. The ensuing drama is not a driving force here. Instead, as in the first novel, the story is really a feel-good one about friendship, community, and inventing new or alternate lives.
There are dogs in both stories, and in this second one they’re given as much consciousness and agency as the human characters, which may strike readers as an odd bit of supernaturalism in what is otherwise a realistic story. A mountain lion also plays a key part; this appearance is a real possibility, as the animals sometimes stray into Southeast Alaska, with one reported sighting by a state trooper in Skagway a number of years ago.
In this volume, Henry finds himself more and more “at home” in his new community, with strong friendships, a love interest, useful work, and, in the end, reconciliation with his daughter. It gives nothing away to tell this, since the entire narrative trend is upwards, with no instances of real trouble for Henry or others. There’s plenty of humor along the way; plenty of potlucks, barbecues, memorials, and beer and coffee drinking familiar to Alaskans; and plenty of character “types,” including clueless tourists, to recognize.
Of particular note is the introduction of a reality television crew that signs on with a tourism business to film a hiking trip, complete with an actor and staged accident. Toward the end, Henry participates in a multi-day hike on the Chilkoot Trail; this part of the story rings with actual realism about what such a hike involves, including narration from the guide and rangers about safety, native plants, and gold rush history. “(The guide) rattled off all the hazards they would not have, such as ticks, chiggers, skunks, snakes, poison oak or ivy, but spent some time on bears.”
There’s no doubt that Nettleton knows and loves the land and people she writes into her stories. Here she is with one description as seen by a smitten Henry: “Sunlight gilded the hillsides, reflecting a bronze wash on the Taiya Inlet. Terns argued, gulls lazed in the shallows. Common mergansers hugged the edge of the river’s mouth. Shooting stars dotted the tide flat in mats of pink.”
Nettleton is also the author of three previous humorous books about Alaska adventures and editor of a guidebook to nature along Alaska’s Inside Passage. She currently lives in Oregon but previously made homes in Talkeetna, Skagway and Juneau.