Seward author’s debut novel sings of a year in a small seaside Alaska town

Seward Soundboard

By Sean Ulman. Cirque Press, 2020. 149 pages. $15.

A soundboard was originally a thin sheet of wood over which piano strings were positioned to increase the sound. In modern usage, it usually refers to an electronic panel, as in a recording studio or theater, that’s used to control volume and sound. In Sean Ulman’s debut novel, the word acts as a metaphor to deliver the author’s collected and controlled chorus of life representing Seward, Alaska.

Identified as a novel, Ulman’s book is both fiction and novel in the other meaning of the word — new, innovative, unexpected, outside of traditional literary forms. Highly poetic and consisting of very short paragraphs and sections, the text defies the norms of narrative storytelling to create instead an impressionistic collage of sensory details that, ultimately, add up to story. Language more than narrative is on display here.

Ulman loves language play, especially alliteration and active verbs. Entire paragraphs are made up of single sentences like these two from the first page: “Languid breeze ribbons shipped strollers nose-baths of brine” and “Coils of woodstove smoke smote ramblers’ brains, wracking rambling musings.” Depending on the reader, these may either delight with their creative energy or exhaust with their mannered self-consciousness.

There is, still, a framework that holds a narration. The story begins in September and follows a year through to the following September. More cohesion comes with the two main characters who reappear throughout, growing into the arcs of their lives. One is known as the Returner, a young woman who grew up in Seward, left for several years, and has now returned without any real sense of what she wants to do with her life. The other, the Lightseeker, has a fascination with lights and shiny objects of all kinds; if at first he seems merely eccentric, we soon learn of more complexity and vulnerability.

The community in which all the action takes place is clearly Seward, Alaska. A map in the front lays out the town, roads and surrounding mountains, and the text references specific businesses, like Rez Art, the coffee shop where artists gather, and events, like Seward’s Fourth of July celebration and its Polar Bear Plunge that raises money for cancer research. There are hints that the particular year being memorialized may be 2015-16, with references to “leap day” and murres washing up on beaches as the result of a marine bird die-off. Woody, the famous Alaska SeaLife Center sea lion, is mentioned early on, although his death — in late 2015 — is not.

The author’s keen observation skills and research are on display here. A reader might conclude that Ulman kept a daily journal of everything he saw, heard, smelled, tasted and felt as he made his way around town. He must also have mined local newspaper and radio accounts for details of news and events.

All in all, the portrait of Seward that emerges is a loving and loved one, full of kind and creative people engaged in community-centered lives. There is very little discord and lots of artmaking and celebration. In fact, in our current pandemic lives, to read of gatherings for potlucks and parades is not only achingly nostalgic but refreshing, encouraging with ideas of what communities and community support are and can be.

The characters — some of them recurring and others with single bit parts — include a therapist, a poet, a hobo, tourists, campers, fish processors, a kayak guide, a painter, city workers, a boat captain, a “plucky intern,” “a boy with a cowlick,” a sewing club, women making jam together, “a millionaire from Nevada,” and literally hundreds more. “Spirits” from the past also appear, as railroad workers walk rails they once laid and a milkman totes his basket of bottles around town, tipping his paper cap to the townspeople who hear “the tiniest tinkling of tapping bottles.”

Weather and natural history are well documented. It rains and it snows, and, rarely, the skies hold “the bittiest bit of blue.” In November, “58 bohemian waxwings tooted like dog whistles as they flocked betwixt mountain ash berry trees, ransacking bundles of scarlet berries.” In May, the Returner goes birding with a friend, tallying 41 species including a Hudsonian godwit: “Shot like a flare, it ripped a faint sizzle then whipped a call ‘god-whiiit;’ vanished.” Elsewhere, a beachcomber counts washed-up jellyfish that look to her like “sucker candies.” She paints them in watercolors, her favorite “a red gel bulge beside a pinwheeled peppermint patty wrapped in cellophane.”

Every Alaskan knows of Seward’s Mount Marathon Race, and the chapter titled “Fourth of July” features the race and its environs in considerable detail, including the Returner’s participation in it. The anticipation, the training, and the challenge of the race itself are all presented in a realistic fashion that brings the reader right into the experience. The Returner “got her gloves on and stayed on her feet, glissading the 100-yard snow strip. Her transfer into butter scree went smooth and she chopped into it, riding flung legs, toes up.”

Towards the end, the Lightseeker, watching a young couple on the docks, sees how the light he so loves saturates all of Seward — ”the ideal place to be old or young; or in love or depressed. A village radiating with uplifted landscape, where honest work was available while art beckoned at every foil-curled corner.” This might be the author’s own sentiment, the pleasure in small-town life he’s chosen to share, the light he shines for us.