Book review: Thrills, romance, 1980s coastal life — Dan Strickland’s debut novel has it all

“The Snow Fell Off the Mountain”

By Dan Strickland; Palmetto Publishing, 2024; 305 pages; $17.99.

Beginning in the 1970s Dan Strickland fished commercially all over Alaska — in Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay. He and his wife now make their home in Palmer, where they run a small-batch coffee roastery. Clearly, though, he never shook fishing from his system, and his experience permeates “The Snow Fell Off the Mountain,” his first book.

Set in the summer of 1980 in and around the fictional coastal town of Coroglen (a barely disguised Cordova), the novel features two young salmon fishermen — one experienced and one newly arrived — plus a young woman/love interest who works on a tender. There’s also a charming older immigrant from Malta, an eccentric hermit, two brutal villains and a pair of heroic dogs. The action largely surrounds the small-boat drift gillnet fishery where a major salmon river (a lightly disguised Copper River) empties onto flats and on nearby bays and fjords (a lightly disguised Prince William Sound). It also involves drug running, martial arts, boats burned and sunk, a tsunami warning and multiple murders.

While the action is fast and furious, Strickland is especially skilled at evoking both the halcyon days and joys of salmon fishing and the terrors of crossing bars and breakers and fighting through storms. He’s thoroughly adept at recreating a time in the fishing industry before cellphones, refrigerated seawater, fish pumps for offloading fish, and sophisticated electronics. The main character, Rafe, fishes by himself on a 26-foot wooden bowpicker he calls a “skiff,” with a small cabin and a hold that fills, on a bountiful day, with a few hundred salmon.

Here’s Rafe fishing when we first meet him, early in the season: “He peered into the fluid blackness where the night and the water melted together, until at last he could see the faint bobbing of his net light and the sinuous curve of the net in the channel. Within seconds the fierce sweep of the ebb would catch at the curtain of web hanging in the muddy water and coax it into a gentle convexity, like a strong wind fills a sail. Even as he watched, a salmon hit the net in mid-channel, near the corkline, and raised a futile splash in its struggle for freedom.”

Soon after, the secondary character, Paul, arrives by ferry “into the heart of Alaska, the last great bosom of anonymity.” He has a black eye and swollen face, looking very much as though he’s been in a fight, and is clearly fleeing something. The mystery will hold until almost halfway through the book.


And then there’s the beautiful Sophie, who cooks and cleans and handles grocery orders on the tender, working for an obese and unsavory man named Moose. Rafe is smitten at his first sight of her. “Her legs were long and slender, her hips narrow like a boy’s, and there was a swelling fullness to her breasts that caused a momentary breathlessness in Rafe.” The two of them very soon declare their love for each other.

Fishing, fighting, conspiracy, accidents and murder all drive the story as a literary thriller, while the love portion seems to want to carry it into the territory of a romance novel. Reading about so much hugging and kissing may make a reader feel as uncomfortable as being around newly-in-love friends who are completely infatuated with one another and embarrassing to those outside their circle of two.

Two minor characters are perhaps most memorable. The old Maltese fisherman gives Paul his first deckhand job and is charming, kind and humorous. He shouts sometimes in Maltese and otherwise speaks with a heavy accent. “Ze devil takes hees chance wi’ me!” The begrimed Gene, a hermit who lives in a hut in the woods, dresses all in black except for the white cotton gloves he wears to read Dostoyevsky. When he hears a spirit voice call him out at night, he finds a dead man in a ditch and carries him all the way into town to the police station.

Alaska readers may particularly enjoy the portrait of a town like Cordova in a time when residents left their keys in their trucks at the harbor for others to borrow, the whole community enjoyed potlucks with multiple fish and venison dishes, newpapers circulated with local news, and naked saunas were a chief source of relaxation. At least in this novel, fishermen fished long and hard but also took time off to go hiking, to listen to birds and admire the views. Some of Strickland’s most lyrical writing captures such moments.

In one passage, Rafe and Sophie hike up a mountain in a light rain. “They could see for fifty miles, maybe a hundred. The trees had yielded to scrub juniper and grass on the mountaintop, but below them only a couple hundred yards the forest lay wet and dark, with the wind singing lowly through it and causing the branches to dance.” Rafe admits that he likes to imagine that it’s a hundred — or two hundred — years earlier, how things would have looked much the same, how he’d have fit into the landscape.

“The Snow Fell Off the Mountain” is an invitation to readers to turn back the calendar and imagine for themselves what Alaska’s coastal life might have been like in a simpler, more slowly moving time, not that long ago.

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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."