Alaska fiction has long been a weak cousin to its more robust nonfiction, so it's a pleasure to see recent Alaska-based writers opening up more imaginative pathways into the country and the human heart. Seth Kantner's "Ordinary Wolves," Eowyn Ivey's "The Snow Child," Don Rearden's "The Raven's Gift" -- these are just a few in the progression of novels that have received national and international attention. Another writer with an Alaska connection has now joined the ranks, with the publication of Rachel Weaver's "Point of Direction."
This debut novel, featuring two 20-something characters who team up to live at a remote lighthouse, has been recommended as a summer read by O, the Oprah Magazine ("a stirring romance set in the Alaska wilderness") and was praised by Publishers Weekly for making "brilliant use of the harsh and beautiful Alaskan seascape."
The basic plot, set in a close-to-contemporary Alaska (lacking cellphones, among other technologies) involves the coming together of Anna and Kyle, damaged people unwilling to share their secrets. Additional mysteries and drama abound: the disappearance of the lighthouse's earlier keeper, another mysterious and threatening character, raging storms and a couple of boating disasters. The young woman's past trauma on a glacier gradually unfolds. Southeast Alaska, with its gray skies, tangled forests and towns full of rubber-booted people, assumes a character of its own.
Weaver has earned her Alaska chops. Although she lives in Colorado today, she worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska for four years -- her bio says she studied songbirds, raptors and black bears -- and began the book while wintering in Petersburg. She knows something about Alaska living and the landscape of Southeast. And at times, she brings a lyrical quality to descriptions, particularly of the island-and-sea setting.
Anna, on arrival at the lighthouse island: "Mountains on either side begin jagged and white, turn to a green that is almost black, then dive sharply into the sea. In the other two directions, the channel snakes long and thin as far as I can see." And "This is a place where all the rules are different, a place outside normal life and society, a place where I have not yet failed."
What Alaskan doesn't recognize that lifting of eyes to what surrounds us, along with the drive to find the fresh, elemental place, where we might begin anew?
Anna later frequently sits in the small room at the top of the lighthouse and sketches what she sees from each window. As she studies the coastline, the mountains and distant curves of glaciers, she tries "to re-create the inconsistencies of rock, the shallow tilt of valleys" and avoids looking too long at a particular peak. She listens to the wind and thinks about being "altered by the wind, but not torn apart by it."
Despite Weaver's evocation of familiar places and of characters who might be recognized on the streets of Petersburg or Juneau, "Point of Direction" isn't meant to be realistic. The heavily plotted novel includes some improbable and even silly elements, but the point is not to replicate real life but to build a world of its own, where human strengths and foibles might be explored. Weaver achieves the latter remarkably well, and Alaska readers need only suspend their disbelief when her depictions of rural life and seamanship don't line up with their own experiences and knowledge.
Weaver is to be particularly applauded for her creation of a female protagonist quite capable of wielding a chain saw and an ax, driving a skiff through rough seas and solving her problems independent of a man. We know that competent Alaska women are commonplace, but the characterization might be more original and impressive for, say, many readers of Oprah's magazine. If romance lies at the heart of this novel, it's not limited to two characters in love. It extends into the wider world, where the quest is about finding one's own way around life's crevasses -- to use a metaphor appropriate to the storyline.
"Point of Direction" is a fine first novel, demonstrating once again the richness of place to be imaginatively plumbed by Alaska-based and Alaska-inspired writers.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming."