By Anne Coray. West Margin Press, 2021. 302 pages. $16.99.
Writer John Gardner used to say that there are only two plots in all of literature: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In the case of “Lost Mountain,” the stranger is Alan, a 40-something “solar tech” who arrives by small plane to a remote Alaska artists community, where he’s been hired to install solar panels and otherwise be the community’s handyman. Right away, still at the airstrip, Alan notices a woman in a red scarf, whose appearance takes his breath away.
Anne Coray, the author of three poetry collections, has brought her observational and writing skills to fiction that demonstrates both her attention to language and her passion for her home place. Coray, who was born in a cabin on Alaska’s Lake Clark and has spent much of her adult life on the family property, has chosen a very similar locale for her fictional community, Whetstone Cove. She has also embraced the years-long controversy over the proposed Pebble mine in western Alaska by creating a plot around a very similar project.
Whetstone Cove is a planned community of artists on a western Alaska lake, within a national park and in view of a landmark mountain. The homesteading patriarch who started it all is near the end of his life, and his daughter runs the show, leasing cabins to a variety of artists and otherwise managing the community’s infrastructure. Throughout the summer — except for a salmon-fishing break — tourists fly in on day excursions to visit, attend art demonstrations and buy art. Dehlia, the red-scarf woman, is a recent widow and a carver of birch masks.
“Lost Mountain” is many things: a love story between the two main characters, a portrait of a small and isolated community, a mystery, a paean to salmon and lives that surround salmon, a not-very-disguised critique of a megamine project, and an example of eco-fiction — environmentally conscious literature.
The many characters can be hard to keep track of initially, but the well-drawn individual and consistent qualities of each eventually sort them out. The chapters alternating between the viewpoints of Dehlia and Alan orient the reader with each switch and keep the story moving chronologically through the seasons.
It’s not giving too much away to say that, as news of exploration of the nearby mine site comes to the community, some members are opposed, some are in favor, some are wait-and-see, and the two main characters are not of a single mind. There is also a mystery involved. Who has what motives, what secrets, what alliances? When mining company representatives arrive for an “informational meeting” they’re shouted down by the opposition. Later, when a legislative committee comes for a hearing on a bill to protect the region’s fisheries, speeches are given about the value of salmon and the threats of acid leakage.
Coray makes an effort to present the other side of the issue — jobs, the regional and state economy, the need for metals even in green technologies — but it’s clear enough where her sympathies lie. As the Alan character notes, “Science was their one true ally. But it was slow.”
A considerable strength of the novel is its detail of place and the seasonal rhythms of rural Alaskans. This is material that Coray knows well and brings to life with fondness and accuracy. Residents harvest ice from the lake. Dead spruce trees cut for firewood are infested with the white grubs of bark beetles. Dehlia, paddling a canoe to shore, notices at her feet “clumps of weasel snout, the plants’ waxy leaves already splaying with age, the three-inch flower spikes browning from the bottom up.” Later, Dehlia learns that the key to stocking lakes with fish is releasing the fry from a plane at an altitude of 200 feet; too low and the fish don’t have time to turn so that they enter the water headfirst and have their best chance of surviving the fall. Of course, everyone wears Xtratuf boots.
When the red salmon arrive to the lake in July, Coray brings full focus to the fishing activity. “Everyone participated; this was the chance to stock up on a year’s worth of protein, and no one took it lightly. Throughout the community, pressure cookers were pulled down from high shelves. Nets were hauled out, knives were sharpened, canning jars collected and counted.” In the pages that follow, gillnets are staked on pulley systems along the lake’s shore and residents work cooperatively on the catch and processing.
The author also makes excellent use of metaphors from the natural world. “In a small town rumors were as common as lice to wild ducks.” “... she’d felt like a trout following a spinner, lured but not ready to strike.” “Something fluttered in his chest: wingbeats of a trapped moth.” Freshwater harbor seals haul out on the ice, “their fat bodies like a wreath of elongated dark pears.”
Despite the controversy at its heart, “Lost Mountain” is a sweet book and one with a sense of humor. The local novelist likes to correct the grammar of others and, when a poem with the potential of disrupting the community surfaces, he waves away the concern. “It’s a literary journal,” he says. “No one reads them.”
Few enough people read literary works of any kind, but “Lost Mountain” should find its way to those who appreciate many-faceted stories that question and inform even as they entertain.