By Thomas McGuire. Boreal Books, 2019. 274 pages. $15.95.
Georg Wilhelm Steller, the doctor and naturalist who accompanied Vitus Bering on the first Russian voyage to North America, in 1741, has long been of interest to historians and readers generally. Among the nonfiction books written about Steller and his discoveries are Corey Ford’s 1966 classic “Where the Sea Breaks Its Back” and Dean Littlepage’s 2006 “Steller’s Island: Adventures of a Pioneer Naturalist in Alaska.”
Now comes a remarkable work of fiction that both casts the historic Steller in fresh light and posits the quest of a later botanist for an orchid he’s told Steller described in a letter. In “Steller’s Orchid,” Thomas McGuire, a longtime resident-adventurer of Alaska, presents a richly told tale deeply informed by Alaska history, geography, natural history and all things related to ships and seafaring.
At the start, it’s 1977 and a young woman preparing her art school application is going over her portfolio with her great-uncle John. When John mentions having been in Alaska at her age, she presses him to tell her more.
And what a story it is. In 1924, we learn, John, then a student at Yale, was chosen to travel to Alaska to conduct a plant survey of Nagai Island, the island just south of the Alaska Peninsula, at the start of the Aleutians, where Bering’s men (in fact) went ashore to replenish their water supplies before heading home to Russia. Yale’s botany professor and his wife, orchid enthusiasts, had come into possession of previously unknown letters from Steller to his wife. One of these mentioned an orchid with a “brilliant crimson” flower that Steller had seen on Nagai and had apparently not recorded except in the letter. The professor and his wife were determined to acquire the plant.
The intricate story that follows, told by John from memories he sometimes questions, turns out to be far more than what one might expect from a flower hunt. It is filled with lively action, a cast of unforgettable characters, and realistic depictions of both the landscapes of Western Alaska and the largely lawless conditions of the time. John misses his most direct opportunity to get to the Shumagin Islands and ends up traveling to Nome before backtracking with some questionable characters on a bootlegging schooner. Along the way he joins up with a young Aleut-Norwegian woman, who becomes his guide, not just to Western Alaska but to his own understanding of who he is and what he values.
While the story of John and his adventure is entirely fictional, there does not appear to be a single wrong note in the details and descriptions of what might have been encountered in 1924. This applies as well to the characters and their behaviors, which ring as thoroughly authentic. The “vivid and continuous dream” that writer and critic John Gardner attributed to the best of fiction is never broken by questions of “could that have happened?” or “would he have done that?”
McGuire is clearly a scholar of the time period and of Alaska’s natural history. His coast of Alaska and the communities, volcanoes, bays and even examples of petrified forest and volcanic pumice are recognizably real. He also understands human nature, and has endowed his characters with complex lives and emotions, as well as backgrounds in Aleut culture, Chinese poetry, boat navigation and — in John’s case — privileged, dogmatic thinking. John at one point thinks “I felt as though I had fallen off the edge of the world into a pack of wolves. No one ever needed to sleep, or eat regular meals, or stop and think before acting.”
Among the realistic situations that the fictional John encounters are discriminatory racial attitudes towards Alaska Natives and Chinese, illegal sea otter hunting, fish traps and fish trap robbing, cannery operations, trading (including that of illegal products), and the shipping industry. McGuire’s storytelling brings to life events and attitudes that are only dryly, obscurely told in history books. When John observes a fish trap robbing in the dark of night, he — whose grandfather owned a cannery — is outraged, as Natasha, his Aleut friend, goes about making coffee with a nonchalant “All the traps get robbed, usually by bribing the watchman. Nobody cares. They all belong to a bunch of rich outsiders.” A fisherman later tells him, “Last year twice I loaded my boat but had to pitch the fish overboard ‘cause the canneries had all the trap fish they needed. You call that fair?”
Certainly a major part of what makes “Steller’s Orchid” great storytelling is McGuire’s use of precise and lyrical language. He is especially adroit at ending chapters with language that both sings and invites the reader to turn the page. Consider: “As the boat rolled his cup moved like a bird with a broken wing.” And this: “Natasha tossed a log on the fire. A bit of cedar by the scent, one that had been caught in the gyres of the North Pacific only to be cast ashore on Nagai. A whirlwind of sparks ascended to the heavens. Each speck of light seemed to hesitate before fading to obscurity.”
“Steller’s Orchid” most definitely deserves a spot among the best of contemporary Alaska fiction. It’s a perfect example of literature that can entertain while also teaching about place, history and the human heart.