Lyricism of ‘Water Mask’ takes readers deep into Alaska, and into an inquisitive mind

Water Mask

Monica Devine, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 176 pages, 2019. $16.95

On the third page of Monica Devine’s essay collection “Water Mask,” an aging woman tells her the story of a young mother dipnetting in the Copper River with her baby in a backpack. As she leans over to make a sweep with the pole, the baby slips loose from the pack, falls into the river, and is swallowed up. Devine recoils, realizing she had taken similar risks with her own baby, not thinking twice.

It’s a heart-wrenching moment, and the remainder of the book never quite reaches that point of darkness again, but death and loss haunt many of the pieces collected here. Also repeatedly present are the Copper River, along which she and her husband have a cabin, the varied landscapes and cultures found across Alaska, and an almost zen-like focus on tiny details, all of it delivered with a sense of linguistic imagery that at time evokes visual artworks, placed on exhibit in the minds of readers.

Devine, who lives in Eagle River, is known primarily for authoring several children’s books, but here she turns to memoir writing, sifting through the back pages of her life for stories, and reflecting them outward onto Alaska and the world.

Now retired, Devine was a speech therapist who worked with children, a job that took her all over the state, allowing her to interact with far-flung communities and those that serve them. One essay draws from her many flights with bush pilots, known for taking countless chances that aviators elsewhere would never understand, because they would never encounter the conditions that demand such risk taking.

“What of situations that aren’t covered in standard flying manuals,” she asks. “Where is it written how to land on a moving ice floe to rescue whalers on snow machines when pack ice sheers away from shorefast ice?”

She visits the ice herself when invited to tag along with a whaling crew during a spring hunt from Utqiagvik. There she learns of a crew that was set adrift decades ago when the ice they were on broke free and survival became the focus.

Remembering her days as a speech therapist, she tells of a 4-year-old boy she assessed in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass. When asked to point to pictures in a book as she she named such items as shoes and a feather, he refused. Not out of spite or disobedience, but because the learning style itself made no sense to him. Raised in a community where knowledge is gained by observation, he could not grasp repeating things by rote.

“Though standardized tests are required by law to assess the services of special education, it made no sense to ask a child to point to a picture of a parking meter when he has never seen one before,” she explains. “How does one compare a child’s everyday experiences in a remote Alaskan village to those of children in Des Moines or Buffalo, where the cultural variances are as wide as the river long?”

Raised in Michigan, Devine came to Alaska in 1978. She found her way to Fairbanks where, like so many other young newcomers to the town, she took up residence in a dry cabin and absorbed the extreme cold of Interior winters. There, too, she met her husband Kent and was soon living with him at what she calls his “work-in-progress house,” where plumbing and electricity were yet to arrive. It’s a quintessentially Fairbanks story, one that so many of us who have made our homes here have our own variations on.

Devine found in Alaska the home she had never felt in the Midwest. Living closer to nature — and a far more severe nature at that — she became an observer. She describes an encounter with a hoary marmot on the tundra as a fusing of consciousnesses as the two stare into each other’s eyes. On the following page she lifts up a small stone from the beach in Nome and considers all that brought the rock to be in that place at that time. These are the points where the zen consciousness takes hold and she finds herself completely encased in the moment.

A similar sentiment is found in a later piece about the ever-shifting light conditions in the north, veering from full daylight to its near absence, and the seemingly endless sunshine of summer that one hopes will remain forever, but that vanishes as quickly as it arrives. Its departure cannot be stopped though, she writes, because “you can’t push a river. You can’t force your wishes or make anything stay. You must simply wait.”

One thing we all find ourselves waiting for at one time or another is the death of a loved one. The passing of each of her parents is examined in separate pieces, her mother who went rather suddenly, and her father who descended into dementia before finally breathing his last.

Devine continues her travels, recounting a boat journey from Washington State to Alaska that was mostly serene through the Inside Passage, but turns predictably violent as they enter the Gulf of Alaska.

“Tossed from wave to wave, the ruthless battering of our bodies and the constant churn of sleep-deprived minds begins to take its toll,” she relates, adding, “The once highly organized cabin looks like an adolescent’s bedroom: scattered sundries tossed about the floor.”

This evocative language runs throughout Devine’s writing. Her husband, she tells us, came up from the Midwest to work on the pipeline in the ’70s. “The mountains captured his affections and a return to the rolling cornfields of Iowa shrank away like an image in a rearview mirror.” Upon the arrival of their children, “We simply blended them into our everyday experiences because that is the way we lived.”

“Water Mask” takes readers deep into Alaska and deep into an inquisitive mind, with lyricism on every page. It begs of its readers that we all pay attention. Pick up that stone. It contains the world.