Book review: Landscapes of family and place flourish in this Alaska memoir

“Rivers and Ice: A Woman’s Journey Toward Family and Forgiveness”

By Susan Pope; Riddle Brook Publishing, 2024; 253 pages; $17.99.

Susan Pope arrived as a 5-year-old in pre-statehood Alaska from Buffalo, New York, with her parents and a younger sister. She has remained a resident ever since, with an extended family now including two near-adult grandchildren. “Rivers and Ice,” in well-crafted and insightful essay chapters, follows her life as both she and Alaska grew from raw beginnings to the present day. The whole forms a generational portrait of family and place, involving both love and loss and imbued with hard-won resilience.

Pope’s life is one of contrasts, and her book shuttles back and forth between her two major attachments — one to family, the other to wild places and adventure. These, we come to see, are born from two conflicting origins — fear and insecurity mixed with strength of character and stubborn independence.

The early chapters are particularly interesting for their vivid depictions of life in Anchorage in the 1950s. Pope’s paternal grandparents were drawn to work in Alaska just after the war. They encouraged Pope’s parents to join them and her father’s younger brothers; although her father hadn’t finished high school, his electrician skills were in demand. The move took Pope’s shy mother away from her own family, something she seemed never to complain about but which certainly took its toll.

A lot happened in Pope’s first Alaska years to impress and influence her. The family’s first winter, in the lightly populated Spenard, included record snowfalls. “As the winter wore on, a windstorm would descend, blowing a white-out, piling the snow into drifts which hardened like concrete. Moose ambled past our windows and gazed inside. To a city-bred five-year-old, this land was like the fairy tales my mother read to us, a magical place where anything was possible.”

Pope’s great joy was ice skating with her father, during which she felt “graceful, beautiful, loved.” She was much more often with her house-bound mother. Once, coming back to the house from berry-picking, her mother fell, hit her head, and was briefly unconscious. “At that moment, I knew how fragile she was, and how tenuous our life was in this big new place.” Then, the family was unmoored when the Alaska grandparents were killed in a car accident, after which the 1964 earthquake shook them in multiple ways. Pope realized, “The world could tumble apart at any moment, and I would have no control over anything.”


“Girls don’t do that,” was something Pope heard from her father throughout her childhood. Girls don’t ride bikes. Girls don’t camp in the woods with friends. College wasn’t for her (“I’m not spending any money for a girl to go to college. They just get married and waste it.”) Her mother was not so rigid, but neither was she encouraging. Pope was determined that she wouldn’t follow her mother’s path into a restricted, dependent life.

Pope not only taught herself, surreptitiously, to ride a bike but took control of her life, earning money for college, garnering multiple degrees, and eventually holding a series of professional jobs. She did marry — twice — and raised one daughter. She traveled throughout Alaska, on river and hiking trips, and to foreign lands.

Late in the book, Pope discovers aspects of her father’s and father-in-law’s lives she never knew about. A trunk discovered in cleaning out her father-in-law’s house after his death held not just his Army dress uniform and military medals but a Nazi uniform, and she learned that the man she’d never warmed to had served in World War II counterintelligence. Later, visiting an American cemetery in Italy, she realized that her long-dead father could so easily have been among the 1,400 buried there. As a gunner in a fighter plane over Italy, he’d been shot down. He’d survived, come home, married her mother, and brought his family to Alaska. Instead of appreciating that past, she’d striven for a life she saw as “more intellectual, worldly, exciting than the one I believed he had lived.”

There are many such well-earned emotional moments in “Rivers and Ice,” including passages about her father’s delight in buying a simple cabin on Nancy Lake, where he could relax and fish. Later, his children tore down the wreck of a cabin and built a more substantial one in its place, but as time went on, the daughters and grandchildren lost interest in using or maintaining it. In the chapter in which Pope skis in to check on it one winter, she finds “what was left of my parents’ prized piece of Alaska — a lonely little shack.”

In this sensitive and clearly written account that spans five generations of Alaskans, readers will find not just a history of what draws people to Alaska and holds them there, but an incisive inquiry into what draws any person into, away from, and back to family. Pope has honestly and concretely shared in her first but long-anticipated book the accumulated experience and wisdom of her one authentic life.

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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."