Book review: ‘Fireweed’ blends historical and supernatural, brings an Alaska author into the spotlight

“Seasons of Want and Plenty Book I: Fireweed”

By Kris Farmen; Blazo House, 2022; 176 pages; $16.99

Recently, while talking with a friend well versed in Alaskan literature, I mentioned that I was reading one of Fairbanks author Kris Farmen’s new books, “Fireweed,” part of a three-volume trilogy set in the waning days of Russian America. Farmen, my friend said, has largely flown under the radar among Alaska’s writers. It was a sentiment I agreed with. He’s underrated and underappreciated.

Evidence of this can be found in “Fireweed.” Taking place in the summer of 1862, it follows Ivan Lukin, the son of a highly regarded Russian fur trader cut down prior to the book’s opening, and a Native woman who nurtured her son in his heritage. Lukin is the disgraced and demoted former commander of a Russian fort, now stationed in Nulato. Historically a meeting locale for Koyukon and Inupiat peoples, Nulato had, by 1862, been a remote Russian treading post for a quarter century.

Seeking to redeem himself, Lukin agrees to travel up the River Kwifpak (the Yukon) to locate a Hudson’s Bay Co. fort said to lie somewhere along the river west of the 141st parallel, the line dividing Russia’s North American claims from British-administered Canada. The English company is muscling in on trade that the Russian-American Co. considers its own, and Lukin’s job is that of spy. To gather information, potentially at the cost of his life.

More than one good story, most famously Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” has told of a river journey toward a murky destination and undetermined fate, the lead character often encountering a world belonging to its original inhabitants with their own motivations, the actions they might take uncertain and possibly dangerous. Farmen puts this trope to good use, building the tale from the very surface of the river and the lands it bisects.

Interior Alaska was, in 1862, largely unexplored by the Europeans pushing into it. Yet the region was hotly contested, and an incursion could lead to an international incident. “When Lukin left to push upriver,” Farmen writes, “he would be moving into the blank space that separated the two mightiest empires on the planet, and this was by no means lost to him.”


Lukin initially travels with a crew of traders bound for Nuklukayet (today’s village of Tanana), where an annual Native trade fair is set to take place. The scene Farmen paints here is lively and welcoming on the surface, but ominous signs can be seen and felt, and this being a novel, the visit eventually turns sour.

While in Nuklukayet, the men find signs that the British had already been and gone from the fair, taking the best furs with them in exchange for items superior to what the Russians can offer. Laden with what goods they can acquire, the traders return downriver, while Lukin continues north alone, tasked with a mission he is coming to question.

Farmen blends historical realism with elements of the supernatural in this story. Lukin, when alone, is repeatedly visited by Zia, whom he had first encountered as a young man while studying in New Archangel (now Sitka). In a flashback to that fateful meeting, she emerges from the woods, naked and, at that time, a bit older than Lukin. Only afterward does he learn she is the ghost of a Tlingit girl who had drowned. Years later, now entering middle age, Lukin is still being visited by Zia, unchanged despite the passage of time, pursuing him as he moves through life, and in this case, up the river. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Lukin nonetheless resists the advances of a ghost that for all the world seems real.

Further otherworldly events transpire, including a meeting with a giant who gives Lukin the power to understand multiple languages, and forbidding signs that materialize as images on the surface of the moon.

Mostly, however, naturalism permeates the book. Farmen has done exhaustive research into a part of Alaska’s past that has been inadequately explored by historians and barely represented in fiction. He shows this in part through his use of Russian names for landmarks, peoples, company positions, and everyday items. Here today’s Russian Mission is Ikogmiut Mission. The Déné Athabscan people, from whom Lukin is descended through his mother, are known as the Dinneh, the Russian spelling. Kayaks are bidarkas.

Farmen brings his readers into a land where governance hardly exists beyond the whims of fort managers (called bidarshiks, the Russian term for the position). Relations with Indigenous groups are tenuous and vary from one group to another. Most importantly, he evokes Interior Alaska with passages conveying its timelessness, difficult topography, and the hardship even plants endure in simply surviving the extreme climate.

“This far north the forests clung to the rivers and ponds in discrete ribbons where the soil was marginally warmer,” he writes, as Lukin reaches the terminus of his journey upriver and comes ashore. “You could only go so deep in these woods before you came out the other side, and he eyed the lighter space through the trunks of birch, spruce, and cottonwood where the tall forest petered out into waist-high black spruce, and then to tussock tundra.”

Cormac McCarthy has been an influence on Farmen’s work from his first novel onward, though less overtly as he has matured as a writer. Here he draws from that master of American literature while presenting the evening festivities at the trade fair, where “The beat and the music and the singing beneath the endless boreal sky changed the dancers into animals, into birds and fish and spirits, and into spirit itself.”

This finely crafted writing builds both place and atmosphere, drawing the reader into a tightly composed novel that opens new territory for Alaskan fiction while demonstrating Farmen’s considerable powers. Hopefully “Fireweed” and its sequels will finally elevate him above the radar.

(“Fireweed” is the first of a trilogy, “Seasons of Want and Plenty,” following Ivan Lukin through the final years of Russian America. The others will be subjects of future reviews.)

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at