By Kim Heacox; Alaska Northwest Books; 2015; $26.99; 264 pages.
It's been a very good year for Kim Heacox. Before 2014, the Gustavus resident was already the respected author of several nonfiction books, a memoir, and a novel. Now, in rapid succession, he's given us "John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire" (2014), "Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska's Denali National Park" (2015), and the just-published novel "Jimmy Bluefeather" (2015.)
Not that any of this came easily. Each of these books was many years in the making -- Heacox might say a lifetime. It's just that his long, hard work finally paid off with the attention of publishers and the book world. What's perhaps most impressive, beyond the timing, is the diversity of the three recent books, each in a different genre and involving significant research and imagination.
"Jimmy Bluefeather" opens with a terrific central character, the 90-something-year-old Keb Wisting, who's anticipating his pending death. Keb lives in a Southeast Alaska village, surrounded by family and a close but sometimes contentious community. He's of Tlingit and Norwegian heritage -- with a few other parts thrown in. With a bad eye, creaky knees, ears that miss the winter wren's notes, and a sometimes confused mind, Wisting, the last canoe carver of his kind, had come to see himself as "a pocket of a man" no longer himself. It used to be hard to live and easy to die -- but now, for him, it was the other way around.
An accident involving his grandson gets Keb thinking about what matters -- and it isn't fame or fortune. Raised by his Uncle Austin in the Tlingit tradition, he's witnessed nearly a century of mystery, change, and human foible. He'll tell his grandson that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want, and getting it. And he thinks to himself: "It's no easy thing to see a man you despise in your grandson's face." Keb, confounded by modern "gadgetgizmos," embarks on a final life project -- the carving of a cedar canoe.
Meanwhile, Keb's two daughters have very different views about what's important in their lives and for the future of the Tlingit people as shareholders in corporations and as, simply, people.
A third storyline takes us into the life of a wildlife biologist studying whales and, in her own way, resisting authority in favor of moral action. If Heacox has a little fun with his depictions of federal bureaucrats and their concerns -- "cognitive tricks of self perception and subjective perception"? -- well, we can all enjoy that.
A dog named Steve and a semi-mythical Raven add to a family tree of intriguing characters.
And what of Jimmy Bluefeather? A journey is involved, and grandson James, not surprisingly, becomes his own man. But not before Keb asks us, "How is it that young people most need our love when they least deserve it?"
The setting in this work of fiction, and the issues that engulf its characters, will be recognizable to most Alaskans. Some landmarks are named as we know them, and others are lightly disguised. "Crystal Bay," for example, serves, transparently, for the real Glacier Bay and is the "memory place" of Keb's Tlingit ancestors, where his people "made the stories that held them together." Crystal Bay, in the novel, is a national marine reserve under federal control, with strict limits on its access. This doesn't sit well with many, who'd like to pursue traditional uses there, and the stakes are raised when an Alaska Native corporation and its subsidiary want to develop mining and tourism in the bay.
Heacox, known from his other writings as an heir to John Muir's brand of conservation, refrains here from proselytizing, even as his characters variously express their convictions about the need for economic development, preservation of natural places and cultural values. The world he creates for us, like the world we live in, has no simple questions or simple answers.
Echoes of Muir
We do, though, encounter echoes of Muir throughout: "Anne could hear distant streams tumbling off mountains, a thousand voices speaking of ice melting into water, rock pulverized into silt, habitats coming alive, rebirth and change, everything on its way to becoming something else."
A non-Native who writes about Alaska Native characters and culture takes a risk, and Heacox, who has a long Alaska residency and considerable knowledge of the place in which he lives, is sensitive to that. His narrative is well-grounded in considerable research as well as in respect for cultural beliefs and practices. The making of a dugout canoe is particularly well -- and lovingly -- detailed. Tlingit language, with a glossary at the end, is incorporated appropriately. Readers learn from Keb that while stories are essential to our lives, some stories are not ours to tell.
Heacox, an exquisite writer, presents us with an Alaska true to its self, beautifully drawn. Consider this: "When you lived on the ragged edge of North America, a thousand miles north of Seattle, where the Pacific was not pacific and storms slammed into high mountains and glaciers skulked in valleys and silent bears made tracks up your spine, you knew as Keb knew that dying was an art when done right, and no final act should be without mystery and grace."
"Jimmy Bluefeather" is a superb addition to Alaska -- indeed, American -- literature. With enough readership, Old Keb Wisting could become as beloved a character as "To Kill a Mockingbird's" Atticus Finch. Not heroic but human, with qualities of toughness, resilience, acceptance and humor, learned as an Alaskan from a life of living close to the Earth and its waters, in a place of stories.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."