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Journey to Interior Alaska and its peopled past with this joyful, lyrical memoir

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: June 13
  • Published June 13

Mostly Water: Reflections Rural and North

By Mary Odden. Boreal Books, 2020. 248 pages. $17.95.

“Mostly Water,” by Mary Odden

The best memoirs invite us into the interesting minds of writers, carry us into territories we might not have tread ourselves and leave us with new perspectives on life. Some can even fill our hearts with joy. In this series of spirited essays drawn from her singular life, Alaskan Mary Odden proves to be an exceptional writer, offering up portraits of the people and places that have shaped her wise and loving view of the world.

The 10 long essays here each focus on a time or space in Odden’s life, beginning with her childhood in eastern Oregon and the life lessons she absorbed from her family, horses, and especially an independent older woman who became her mentor and friend. In “Going to the Hills,” Odden writes, “Finding Gladys was like discovering a mysterious tunnel in my own backyard, and I set out to explore how this woman might stretch the term ‘woman’ out for me, making it something a girl could crawl into.”

The essays seem to be written over a long period of time, beginning perhaps when her now-adult daughter was a baby, and perfected over time. After the first, which helps establish the woman the author would become, they mainly track her Alaska life, to which she came as a young firefighter in the 1970s.

In “From the Air,” Odden frames her time as a firefighter in the Kobuk River Valley around a flight delivering supplies in the region until she’s the only “cargo” left. Her respect for the land she watches from above and the people and their histories in the area are the real subject here. The land, large as it is, is not empty to her. She recognizes it as a map of stories, some hers to tell and others that belong to those who belong to the land or to the land itself; places, like a lake she recognizes as “a shiny coin” on an old portage trail, hold for their people “songs and stories that belong to them, waving in memory like flags.”

“Shape of an Egg” begins in McGrath with the author holding her small, sleeping daughter on her lap, “safe in the shape she was made in,” and traces her evolving and complex thoughts about motherhood and — in the largest sense — who any of us are to one another. Odden artfully turns the essay, like an egg itself, carefully handled, to consider this and then that, what if, how, and what might be next. This is her great gift as an essayist — taking any reader into her expansive mind, not to tell us anything for sure, but to join in a conversation. What happens here? A child sleeps in a mother’s arms. Stories, dangers revisited, people fondly remembered, experience like a “stretch of the river,” everything.

Rivers dominate throughout, as both physical features and metaphors. In “Seeing the River,” Odden writes, “Alaska rivers provide a point of view on history, one that does not deaden and discourage the watcher. In Alaska . . . the river serves as road, stage, human journey.” Especially before the advent of rural television, she tells us, villagers set couches and chairs on riverbanks and left them there for years, keeping track of the river and all who came and went on it. She returns to her memories of Oregon’s Snake River, then comes back to the Takotna and Kuskokwim Rivers and the shape those rivers gave to her life. She reflects on her relationships with two older women who helped her learn to view her life not as a solid thing but more like a river. It is OK, even desirable, to break though to new channels, “leaving expectations behind like a vestigial circle of slough.” One of those women, described as “wrinkled and white and shaped like a question mark,” reappears in the elegiac final essay, “Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger.”

Other essays ponder the month of March, wonder about the lives of people encountered on the state ferry, and investigate the role of dogs in human lives. The penultimate one, “St. Anne’s Reel,” is not only a celebration of singing, fiddle playing and old-time traveling music but is cleverly structured in the form of a reel, with A and B parts alternating to link a series of stories. This not only captures many of the playful aspects of rural entertainment but, along the way, shares how fiddle music traveled upriver to Alaska villages and was adapted into cultural practices.

In between each of the long essays in the collection are very short — a couple of pages each — essays that have to do with food, food sharing and eating. Like palate cleansers, “Mincemeat,” “Lingonberry Sauce,” “Creamed Salmon,” “Potluck” and the rest not only tell how to prepare certain foods but offer their instructions in a storytelling context, usually with a big spoonful of humor.

Mary Odden has clearly been closely observing, thinking creatively and critically, and writing beautiful, image-rich prose for years. It’s about time (thanks to Boreal Books, dedicated to northern literature) that this book has been brought into the world for readers everywhere to learn from and delight in. “Mostly Water” is an especially welcome antidote to the discord and disruption of our current times, a reminder of the large and small pleasures to be found in friendships, families, and the unexpected.

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