“On Heaven’s Hill”
By Kim Heacox; West Margin Press, 2023; 304 pages; $28.99.
Kim Heacox, of Gustavus, is one of Alaska’s best-known writers, author of the memoir “The Only Kayak” and the novel “Jimmy Bluefeather,” among other works. In recent years he’s channeled into writing opinion pieces, many for the newspaper “The Guardian,” about environmental issues and especially climate change. In his new book, a novel, he unites his concerns and interests in a captivating story about belief, community and activism.
“On Heaven’s Hill” is structured around three intersecting narratives — alternating chapters from the viewpoints of a preteen girl with a father wounded in Afghanistan, a former trapper caring for his ill son, and, interestingly, a young wolf. The location is Strawberry Flats, a small coastal community in Southeast Alaska. The conflict, aside from the personal challenges each character faces, centers on a large-scale development in a remote area where a unique species of salmon-eating wolves live.
The author brings to his story his own strong convictions about caring for the earth. References to real-life threats from logging, predator control, climate change, economic development that overrules environment protection, poor education and scientific denial, and political maneuvering — even corruption — abound, along with references to the environmental writers and thinkers Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey and Bill McKibben.
“On Heaven’s Hill,” in fact, might best be considered a book of ideas — or a fable in the style of McKibben’s novel “Radio Free Vermont,” which McKibben himself has called “a fable of resistance.” That is, Heacox’s book tells a story “intended to enforce a useful truth,” as “fable” is defined in the dictionary. It’s underlaid with a deep sense of morality. That’s not to say that it’s a failed novel, lacking ambiguity, just that the reader will discern throughout that the author is expressing his values and inviting you to see the world through the lens he’s constructed. The reader will sense from the start that good will prevail — that, despite the various conflicts, the path will turn toward a better world. A departure from doom-filled dystopias — or even today’s news — can be a good thing.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of “On Heaven’s Hill” is the choice of a wolf as a point-of-view character. Heacox has surely done his homework to understand wolf behavior and to believably inhabit the mind of a wolf. Here’s the wolf, Silver, when we first meet him, lagging behind the rest of his pack: “He hears a strange sound, and stops. From behind a veil of willows he watches a shiny object cross the river over the flat nothingness, moving fast without wings or legs. ... He gets distracted as he tests rounded stones underfoot — rolls them back and forth with a nimble paw — and picks up the scent of a bear, then something else.”
Another character, a man named Salt, is a husband, father to four, deeply religious and tempted to do something he knows is morally wrong in order to get help for a son with muscular dystrophy. He is perhaps the most complex character, the one with the most internal and external conflicts. His oldest son, a secondary character, represents fundamentalism in his rejection of science and attraction to right-wing ideology, nationalism and military might.
The third viewpoint character, Kes, 11 years old at the start, is a pure-hearted girl who may remind readers of the climate activist Greta Thunberg. Her family moves from Texas to Alaska to bring her war-scarred father away from the growing heat and close to the healing powers of nature. In Strawberry Flats, they live in a sort of commune for damaged war veterans, founded by her uncle. Kes loves science and likes to inform others about the size of the universe, the age of the earth and how salmon feed trees. She’s a born leader who organizes other children into a resistance force of “knights.” Not to give too much away, but it’s inevitable that she’ll lead her new community into a major “save the wolves” battle.
But back to Silver, the wolf. Heacox is a lyrical writer, attuned to nature’s rhythms and beauty, and some of his most evocative passages belong to Silver. “Tens of thousands of shorebirds string out along the tideline beaches and probe the sand and take flight en masse, as if each flock were a single organism and every bird a separate muscle or feather in that organism.” When Silver and a sibling try to get close to a flock of geese — “sneaking up through last summer’s rye grass, the tall, dry stalks noisy as rattles ... a single goose honks up the entire neighborhood and sends everybody flying, leaving the wolves earthbound, chasing their own tails.”
Despite trouble and heartache, the world is beautiful, full of joy, music and love. This is the message that “On Heaven’s Hill” delivers, and it should be a welcome one. Three years after the main story ends, that hill, hard to reach, is climbed by a local contingent until “the trees thin out, the sky opens up.” From the top, as the group looks down on a river, forest, sparkling waters and the rooftops of their little community, the preacher announces, “It’s God’s church up here, is it not?” Nobody needs to argue about that.