Book review: In ‘Compass Lines,’ a restless young man finds his way to home in Alaska

“Compass Lines: Journeys Toward Home”

By John Messick. Porphyry Press, 2023. 230 pages. $19.95.

It’s a familiar story: A young man comes to Alaska for adventure and to discover what he’s made of and cares about. What’s different about John Messick’s first book — essentially a memoir in essays — is the author’s deep introspection and the exceptional quality of his writing. The specificity of Messick’s adventures combined with reflections on the meanings of wandering, place and home lift “Compass Lines” well beyond this-is-me into a shared contemplation of what living a good life is all about.

In the introductory essay “Refrigerators at the End of the Road,” Messick sketches out the journey he’ll be taking with readers. He briefly describes his 2010 arrival in Fairbanks as a graduate student, living in a dry cabin and bothered by all the junked appliances that seemed to be a condition of Alaskan life. He then backtracks to skim through his young life — from growing up on a Wisconsin farm where he was “fidgety and bookish” to his nomad years of traveling through Asia as a seeker of the exotic and perhaps a place in which to fit. (In Cambodia, he had a compass tattooed between his shoulder blades.) Brief mentions of his years trail building, wildfire fighting and shoveling snow in Antarctica bring him back to his present life in Alaska, where he at last found a kind of grounding. Messick today teaches composition at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Each essay that follows focuses on a particular time period or adventure, taking us into the lived experience along with the memoirist’s reflections about what he may have missed at the time — about his own feelings and actions. First, we find him as a 12-year-old, fishing with an elderly Serbian immigrant and learning about the importance of listening, faith and tradition. Then, we follow him and the woman who would later become his wife on a canoe trip through the Everglades. Here he uses an inventive and memorable analogy to describe the place: “To comprehend what it is to paddle through the largest contiguous system of mangrove trees in the world, take a piece of paper and give it to a toddler. Let them scribble on it with blue and green and brown crayon until the wax is thick and the colors blur. This will be your map.”

A particularly haunting essay recounts Messick’s time working for the Southwest Conservation Corps along the Arizona-Mexico border in 2008. There he became well aware not just of the scorching Sonoran Desert and its history but of the hidden lives of migrants passing through. One of his assignments was cleaning up a dump site where migrants who had made it across the border abandoned the last of what they’d traveled with. The specificity of his descriptions delivers a searing reality to what readers might know only in the abstract, from news sources. “Along the ridge, hanging in trees, speared to cactus, draped over razor-edged yucca stems, strewn along the dry ground were the belongings of tens of thousands of people.” The sight of “a place caught between an awful ending and a sad beginning” shocked Messick to the point of nausea. He goes on to list for two pages detailed descriptions of items his team spent five long days cleaning up — among them more than 2,000 backpacks, hundreds of plastic Pedialyte bottles, articles of clothing, prayer cards, spent bullet shells, clean and dirty diapers, medicine bottles, a punctured soccer ball, photographs, a large shriveled head of garlic, a journal of poems written by a teenager. He doesn’t leave his narrative there but goes on to ponder with great compassion the tragedy of the border situation, the erasure of lives and the cultural connections that stop at or cross geographic and political boundaries.

After essays about Messick’s restless searchings in Antarctica and Syria, he returns to the north, for essays about firefighting in western Alaska and a river trip down the Mackenzie River and his subsequent move to Alaska; each of these last two further explore his connections to land he was drawn to for its wild and rhythmic qualities and bring him closer to what he eventually recognizes as a home place.


In the final four essays Messick, as a fledged Alaskan, reckons with what that means for him. “Other Bloods” recounts a caribou hunting trip along the Dalton Highway. “Learning to Read” involves trapping and the ways in which paying close attention to tracks and animal behavior helped him to “comprehend mystery.” “Remarks on a Jar of Squirrel” tells of his experience trapping squirrels that were tearing up his roof insulation and then — to be a responsible and self-sufficient Alaskan — preparing to eat them; this humorous and self-deprecating essay digresses into consideration of the work ethic instilled in his childhood, a home improvement project, and his later learning from the Dena’ina worldview about the relationship to land and stillness. The final “Bremner” takes readers into an old mining camp in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where Messick and his pregnant wife spent five weeks in near-isolation; there he eases into a new awareness of history, the gifts of wild beauty and the meaning of family.

In “Compass Lines,” Messick’s authenticity, honesty and self-reflection draw his route across time and space to find his place in the world. We might all learn from his beautifully told journey something about our own.

The author will be making several book appearances in the Anchorage area this month. These include April 14 at The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café, April 15 at Fireside Books in Palmer and April 16 at Title Wave Books.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."