Book review: A biologist’s memoir breaks the surface with an intimate portrait of a marriage challenged by crisis

“Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled”

By Beth Ann Mathews; She Writes Press, 2023; 338 pages; $17.95.

When Beth Mathews’ very healthy and adventurous 56-year-old husband was suddenly felled by an unusual type of stroke while doing routine home maintenance in 2008, the author’s world turned upside down. Her new memoir — her first book — tells the story of her husband’s recovery while also reaching beyond that framework story into deeper waters concerning health and disability, risk versus safety and security, and life choices.

Mathews, her husband, and their nine-year-old son lived in Juneau at the time. Jim Taggart had just retired from a federal research agency; Mathews was happily pursuing her career as a marine biologist — doing research on marine mammals, teaching at the university, and heading up the Alaska Scientific Review Group to advise federal agencies on marine mammal protection.

The first half of “Deep Waters” recounts in vivid and fast-paced detail the “accident,” as Taggart called it, the medevac to Seattle, and the often-alarming medical situation as Taggart was tested and treated, regressed, and advanced to therapy for relearning to walk and managing other effects of the stroke. Mathews, who stayed with him in Seattle for nearly two months, put her own life on hold to focus on his care. He was not an easy patient, “penned in the hospital room like a wolf in a trapper’s forgotten snare.”

The medical journey alternates with passages in which Mathews recalls aspects of their lives together and apart — their courtship and decision to move to Alaska, a time when Taggart rescued a woman from abuse and near-drowning in Costa Rica, both serene and frightening adventures on their sailboat, an earlier time when Taggart used parachute cord for a rescue on Bering Sea ice. Their lives beyond the hospital room — their close relationship, their sometimes conflicts — expand the story outwardly, with heartfelt perspective.

In this first half, readers will also learn about the workings of brains, neural plasticity, and the experience of being treated by a first-rate hospital’s medical team. Mathews also takes readers fully inside the reality of a family member who devotes herself to the singular role of helpmate and advocate. Although she doesn’t make a point of it, the stress on caregivers often exceeds that of patients.


The second half of the book begins with the return home and new challenges for both Taggart and Mathews. Taggart is impatient to return to “normal” life and is often moody regarding his limitations, even as he progresses far faster than doctors had predicted. Mathews struggles between the needs and demands of her husband, wanting to keep him safe, and her own commitments to teaching, research, and parenting. “Jim was right: my job pulled me in many directions. But it was also deeply fulfilling, with measurable short- and long-term successes. In contrast, some of the hurdles at home seemed insurmountable.”

Just three weeks after leaving the hospital, Taggart insists on taking their boat out for a family trip to Taku Harbor and diving for crabs. Soon after that he announces plans to sail around Admiralty Island, some 300 miles over the course of three weeks. Neither of these adventures, in Mathews’ telling, lack drama.

[Need a good summer book? Here are 11 recommendations from Alaskans in the literary world]

Much of the enjoyment of “Deep Waters,” aside from the story of two devoted individuals navigating a medical emergency and recovery, comes with the portrait of life in Southeast Alaska as told by someone intimately familiar with it as a biologist and close observer. Here’s Mathews watching birds from the boat: “Ahead, a flock of twenty phalaropes swarmed and coalesced inches above the water. I watched one of the skinny-necked birds, weighing about as much as half a croissant, hover and dance its lobed feet across the water, dipping her needle-thin bill into the water. Suddenly, a forty-ton whale emerged from below, mouth wide open, throat pleats expanded. The phalaropes darted out of the way, flitting down and up, snatching prey pushed to the surface by the whale, seawater rolling and tumbling out over the whale’s closing jaws.”

Another passage, from that same sailing trip, describes in delicious detail the community of Warm Spring Bay on Baranof Island and the family’s relaxation at its hot springs. “We climbed over and around boulders to reach the lowest pool where we eased into clear, hot water. Surrounding the pools were lime-green devil’s club and lush ferns. Exposed tree roots ambled over rock and forest duff like a network of veins across a weathered hand.”

Ultimately, “Deep Waters” captures with grace and honesty the upheaval and necessary recalibrations that life can present to us at any time, with a keen appreciation for learning to ride the waves into what might be an unexpected but rewarding future.

[Book review: A tenacious Alaska mom takes on a little-known disease and the medical establishment]

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."