Under Nushagak Bluff
By Mia C. Heavener. Boreal Books, 2019. 222 pages. $17.95.
Mia Heavener, now living in Anchorage, grew up fishing in Bristol Bay, where she absorbed stories her mother and other women told between tides and over tea. Her lovely debut novel set in a village near Dillingham, “Under Nushagak Bluff,” draws upon those stories and her own knowledge of the region, its history, its Yup’ik people, and the fishermen and cannery workers who came and went with the salmon runs. It is a compelling narrative, rich in its evocations of a time and place largely unrepresented in our literature — and a welcome addition to it.
The novel begins with a voice. Someone — it’s a while before readers will figure out who it belongs to — is sitting in a skiff on a sandbar, waiting for the tide to come in. “My girl, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ll start with that.” And she begins to talk, with a story “that could be told by the shape of the beach we just left. It is years before me. And it begins with a storm ...”
The narration shifts then, to 1939, with a storm at the height of the red salmon season. Bristol Bay fishing in those days was dominated by cannery-owned fleets of sailing vessels, and here a double-ended boat ends up crashing atop a village skiff belonging to a woman named Marulia. Thus is introduced the newcomer, a Norwegian man named John Nelson. Marulia’s daughter, known as Anne Girl, who “grew up with mud in her fingernails and tundra leaves in her hair,” is taken with the man’s blondness and skin “smoother than the bay when the water was like glass.” If poor John doesn’t seem to have much boat sense or skills that would serve him well in a Yup’ik village, she still is drawn to him. He has his own stories, even if they “were written in a different color than the silty green of the bay.”
At the same time that commercial fishing and the fish-canning industry disrupt the village’s traditional life, missionaries arrive to teach Christian ways. Anne Girl resists the way the woman missionary tries to instruct the village girls in domestic skills and proper behavior. She laughs at the woman’s husband who “didn’t seem to know that he couldn’t touch the stories repeated during maqis (steam baths) and over tea, those stories that linked the young with the old.” After years of marriage, Anne Girl leaves the new part of town to live in her mother’s old house on the bluff side, but she also develops a fondness for drink.
Anne Girl’s daughter Ellen, considered by Anne Girl to have “a sense of idleness no one should have,” has even less connection to the old ways and more attraction to the men and activities around the cannery.
The portraits of these girls and women, and the others they split fish and pick berries with, are vividly drawn. One in particular, known as Sweet Mary, “the lover of all war heroes and cannery men,” holds a central place of strength in the novel’s women-centered world. The men might be money-earning fishermen or pilots, but the women rule, even as they display their vulnerabilities, confusions and betrayals.
Contrasts between subsistence lives driven by the annual cycle of salmon, berries, hunting and sometimes hunger, and the cash economy of imported goods and the cannery store are on display here. So are the contrasts between Western beliefs and what might be thought of as the supernatural. There are “little people” to watch for on the tundra, and the deceased reappear as ravens and gulls to speak to and guide the living. The villagers dispute whether Old Paul “was a shaman. He didn’t, some said, have the great powers like the shamans of the old days ... It was the 1950s. No one had those powers anymore. They disappeared with the big death and the new stories of the missionaries.”
Throughout, the village and the land and sea around it loom large, captured in luminous detail. Place is at the heart of all these women’s lives, in each generation. As much as they speak of leaving, they are of their home place, “blood rooted in the soil.” The place itself is alive and constantly changing, just as they are. Here’s a sudden winter arrival: “Within days after the last moose hunts, a fury of snow and hail pelted the land. The bay heaved and sighed, threatening the villagers as it climbed up the rocky beach. When the waves calmed and receded, leaving a frozen scar around the village, a crystalized type of coldness settled between the village homes.”
Heavener has gifted readers with a story both dreamy and authentic, a story made of many individual stories and celebrating oral storytelling and the value of stories altogether. Let us hope that this is only the first of what she might bring us from the shores of Bristol Bay and beyond.