Wild Rivers, Wild Rose
Sarah Birdsall. University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series. 360 pages, 2020. $18.95.
In keeping with the theme of my most recent review, let’s return again to the subarctic noir genre, this time with Talkeetna author Sarah Birdsall. “Wild Rivers, Wild Rose” is her latest book, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed. Set in and around the fictional town of Susitna Station (a clear stand-in for Talkeetna), it weaves in and around the middle 20th century, drawing readers into an imagined community shattered by an unresolved triple homicide at a nearby mine.
The story opens on Sept. 29, 1941, with one of the three slayings. On the first page, Anna Harker feels the murder weapon, an ax, come down three times on her body. She is left dying on the tundra, having not seen her assailant, and begins reminiscing about her life in Alaska and what had brought her to her impending death, a short distance away from the mine she and her husband Henry operate.
From here Birdsall jumps to the next scene, two days later. Wade Daniels, who has carried on an affair with Anna, is fishing when his cousin Jake comes to tell him that Henry and the Harkers’ employee Nate have been found dead at the mine, hacked to death with an ax. Anna’s whereabouts are unknown.
Then Birdsall fast-forwards 22 years. Susitna Station has grown, and Billie Sutherland arrives from Anchorage with her aunt to witness an eclipse from the town. Billie, we quickly learn, is a stewardess, although she has left her job for reasons that will only slowly emerge. Born and raised in Anchorage, she had traveled the world, but in Susitna Station she tells her aunt she wishes to remain for a few days. She takes a room at the roadhouse, which is run by Anna’s grieving mother Maddie.
From these three threads, Birdsall laces together a tale of mystery, forbidden love, betrayals, hidden motivations, and the ways a small town reacts when three of its own die violently. And where, in the absence of a culprit, nearly all residents are potential suspects.
The shifting viewpoints between the three primary characters follow for the remainder of the book, each running on their own timeline. In short chapters, the characters review their lives while coming to terms with the murders and the question of who is responsible.
As Anna lies on the tundra, slowly bleeding out, she reviews her life. Arriving in Susitna Station with her unwed mother, the pair are taken in by Anna’s uncle, who owns the roadhouse. She grows up in the town amidst a small Alaska Native population decimated by the 1918 flu epidemic, and a similarly sized group of white settlers who have already sorted themselves into the social stratifications humans seem incapable of avoiding. Her own out-of-wedlock origin and her mother’s marriage to Thomas Merkle, a German immigrant distrusted during the interregnum between two world wars, place her on the low end. But she grows up to marry Henry Harker from the village’s wealthiest family. And when Wade shows up to assist on his cousin’s claim, she meets and falls in love with him.
Wade becomes obsessed with the investigation, and with finding Anna, moves that make him somewhat suspect. With Anna’s fate unknown to the authorities, questions swirl of whether she might have killed the other two men and fled. Wade seeks only to clear her name, even as his own life collapses through the ensuing winter.
And in 1963, Billie stumbles onto the story of the still unsolved murders, and seeks answers. She becomes close to Maddie, to an aging miner named Montana widely viewed as the most likely culprit, and to a Bush pilot known as The Finn who had assisted in the unsuccessful investigation.
The three narratives overlap as Birdsall explores the fragile relationships in a small town where everyone seeks to escape their demons while completely enmeshed in them. One can escape them perhaps by leaving, or suppress them while remaining and trying to get by. Susitna Station is built at the train stop, and slowly the world most residents left behind is closing in.
Birdsall’s story is driven as much by the locale as by the history of the times, from the flu pandemic, which Anna recalls while lying on the tundra, to the onset of the Second World War, which the United States is drawn into while Wade seeks his answers, to the Kennedy assassination and the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, which disrupt the lives of Billie and those she knows.
History is a de facto character in this book, as is the village itself, as well as the high country where the mines are operated, and to which the characters keep returning. In Susitna Station, Birdsall evokes a Talkeetna prior to the arrival of climbers and then tourists, a very small town focused on one industry and populated by residents with pasts.
In the mining hills she captures, often in very short lines, a sense of Alaska that fully reveals the place. Of late summer, she writes, “August was like the Sunday evening of a long weekend, when time was running out.” Of snowshoeing in April, “it was still easier than in summer, to go cross-country, with enough of winter left on the ground to keep you above the low-lying tangles of brush, no mosquitoes to be found, and the sun breaking the back of winter’s cold.”
Through imagery such as this, Birdsall imbues Alaska into her characters, and does likewise with the history they live through. It’s not simply the murders that haunt the residents, life itself threatens to consume them. And for some it does.
As she throws clues and false leads at the readers, carrying the crime fiction aspect of the plot along, Birdsall builds a perfectly balanced tale with a distinct sense of place and time, and peoples it with fully realized characters. “Wild Rivers, Wild Rose,” like the mystery at its center, doesn’t let go.