Books

In ‘Whispering Alaska,’ a skillful pivot to young adult fiction from the author of ‘The Alaskan Laundry’

“Whispering Alaska”

By Brendan Jones. Delacorte Press. 2021. 288 pages. $16.99

Following up on a well-received debut novel is never an easy task, but it’s what Brendan Jones faced after his 2016 tale “The Alaskan Laundry” drew widespread acclaim. That book offered a poignant meditation on how people come to Alaska hoping for one last chance to redeem themselves, and how Alaska can repeatedly derail such efforts. It was one of the finest works of Alaska literature to emerge in the past decade, and it left readers with high expectations for where Jones would go next.

On his second outing, Jones answers that question by sidestepping those expectations and writing a young adult novel that explores similar themes while highlighting his versatility as an author. This time, however, he also dives into the ecological and economic conflicts that bedevil Alaskans, stakes out some middle ground, and gives his readers a story that’s both heartwarming and hopeful.

As in his first novel, “Whispering Alaska,” opens with its central character coming north from Pennsylvania shortly after losing her mother. In this story, however, she doesn’t come alone. Twelve-year-old Nicky Hall, the unlikely hero of this book, is accompanied by her twin sister Josie and her father Dan. The book is set in 2020, and in a nod to contemporary reality, their mother, an emergency room physician, has been lost to COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Looking to start anew, Nicky’s father, who hand-builds guitars and other instruments, has taken his daughters to Alaska, where his sister Mallory and her husband Cliff live.

For young readers, the COVID aspect will resonate. They’ve spent the past two years living in an upended world, and the repeated references to masking, social distancing, and fears of contagion will be all too familiar.

COVID drives the plot in another way as well. The family arrives in Jackson Cove, a thinly disguised stand-in for Jones’ hometown of Sitka, where they find a community economically devastated by the loss of tourism revenue, leaving residents grasping for jobs and income so they won’t have to leave.

Salvation comes at a cost. The best chance for keeping the town afloat is to feed the lumber mill with fresh timber, and the most viable source is an old-growth stand in Sky River Valley, which forms the backdrop to the tiny city.

The Halls arrive to find the town on the brink of voting on whether or not to sacrifice the forest for the trees that will keep the mill operating. For residents, it’s an unfortunate but necessary decision. For newly arrived Nicky and Josie, it’s devastating.

This is where Jones draws clear distinctions between the twins. Josie is one of those kids who discover politics and immediately declare themselves experts on a topic. Along with her new friend Veronica, Josie decides to face the community in a pre-vote meeting and lecture them on how to run their affairs. It goes about as well as one might expect.

Nicky finds her way into the dispute through a different angle. She quickly becomes friends with her cousin Clete, a sensitive boy of the same age with significant outdoors skills and a love for the trees who, he tells Nicky, talk to him. His father is foreman of the mill, and Clete is keenly aware of the fact that if the town harvests the nearby old growth, his home will forever change, yet if clearcutting is blocked, his family will be forced to leave in search of work.

This is where Jones, in the form of a novel for kids, writes as an adult. Uncle Cliff, along with the mill’s owner, Lars Ruger, are presented as humans, not villains. They have fully legitimate concerns for the future of the place where they have made their lives. They just happen to see logging as the only viable means of saving the town. I was reminded while reading this of how Edward Abbey, especially in his later novels, tended to paint extractive resource proponents as one-dimensional caricatures, driven solely by greed, and not by the very real necessity of putting food on their tables. Jones avoids this easy pitfall, and in doing so offers young readers a needed contrast to the hyper-polarized political environment the country presently finds itself in. It’s a welcome move that strengthens this story significantly.

Unlike “The Alaskan Laundry,” “Whispering Alaska” is a book for young readers, not a work of literary realism. Thus there’s room for a bit of magic. Clete takes Nicky out into the potentially doomed forest ahead of the vote, where she, too, learns to talk to the trees, who inform her that their fate depends on her saving them.

Being a 12-year-old newcomer to a small town in crisis and deciding she has to save it from itself at the urging of local fauna would be a bit far-fetched in a book for adults, but here it works marvelously. Nicky needs a plan, one that will preserve both the old-growth forest and the fish and wildlife dependent upon it, as well as a town that also needs it. How this comes about leads to an ending that, in wonderfully novelistic fashion, pulls all the threads of the story together. As with so many young adult novels, the kids outsmart the adults by being receptive to new ideas.

The story sets modern concerns against ancient beauty. Jones provides descriptions such as this scene, which Nicky observes from the ferry approaching her new home: “The trees ... rolled out in great carpets over the hills. The ocean detonated in white fireworks against the rocks ringing smaller islands.” “Detonated” is a peculiar yet perfect word for what the tide does.

Where Jones will turn next is anyone’s guess, but “Whispering Alaska” shows he’s as skillful at depicting Alaska for kids as he is when writing about it for adults. He’s emerging as one of our finest novelists, and the fun will be seeing what he does next.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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