To the Bright Edge of the World: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 424 pp)
Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and an international bestseller published in twenty-six languages. A former bookseller and newspaper reporter, she was raised in Alaska and continues to live there with her husband and two daughters.
I’ve never felt more like a magician than in my early iPhone years around my grandparents. When visiting their domicile, the juxtaposition between the phone desk with a decades-old phone matched with the rolodesk-style address book. This picture paints a stark contrast to the sleek super computer in the pocket.
Want to see a picture? My phone can do it! Need a number? My address book is digital like a boss. Want to play a game? The App Store has the perfect match.
Setting aside criticisms for the “plugged-in” nature of new tech, an iPhone can feel magical. Even though I have the basic idea behind why such a product exists, the innovation and technical design/engineering can feel magical.
At the other end, our old-school life experiences have an element of magic in how they are constructed. Urban legends feel just as real as that photograph my iPhone just took. I promise you I’m never going to the 13 steps to hell at the Maltby Cemetery.
The notion of the unexplained existing in primitive oddities as well as advanced technology orbits Eowyn Ivey’s excellent second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World.
Stories Within Stories
Organized in three layers, the novel reads as a story within a story. It begins with an old man hoping to send ancestral artifacts to a museum in Alaska. His ancestor, Allen Forrester kept a diary during his groundbreaking expedition in the Alaska Frontier circa 1885.
I warned you I am a stubborn old man. These boxes have the papers I told you about, the letters and journals from my great-uncle’s 1885 expedition across Alaska. I know you said you weren’t able to take them on, but I’m sending them anyways. You’ll change your mind once you read through all this” (3).
Throughout the book, Walt (the relation to Forrester) and Josh (the museum curator) comment on the narrative and build a friendship.
“Having said all that, I did read through some of the Colonel’s diaries. It isn’t easy to translate his shorthand, even with the key of abbreviations you’ve included, and some of the pages are so water-damaged and faded, it’s hard to make out the writing, but they are really incredible. My interest isn’t just as a museum curator. I am a member of the Wolverine River tribe through my mother’s side. I know many of the places the Colonel describes” (44).
The core of the story, however, are those journal entries. Colonel Forrester tells of his adventures in the frontier, doing his best to remain scientific even though otherworldly encounters keep happening.
Most notably, an Old Man, possibly a shaman and maybe at times a crow, pesters him at times and provides needed sustenance at other times. When Forrester interviews a tribal chief, the story becomes more unreal.
“—The Man Who Flies? What can you tell us about him?
—He is an old man. He wears a black hat. When he flies, he has black wings.
—Tell him we think we have seen this old man, too.
—He has always been the same, then, now.
—Is he a friend of enemy?
—Not one or the other. If a boy is hungry, he sees a rabbit, he kills it. If he isn’t hungry, maybe he chases it for fun. Or maybe he just watches it hop along the snow because it makes him happy to see the rabbit hop” (226).
Among many out-of-this-world experiences, Forrester begins to doubt his own eyes. Is he eating a hallucinogen? Is it magic?
Enter the Lightbox
Back home, Colonel Forrester’s wife remains in the Vancouver Barracks with child. A strong-willed woman uncaring for social convention, Sophie pursues her true passion—photography. As she learns about the chemical compounds required to develop photographs and the way to best capture light, the science of photography shifts closer and closer to magic. Throughout, Sophie’s diary entries point toward the poetic.
“There is a mythical element to our childhood, it seems, that stays with us always. When we are young, we consume the world in great gulps, and it consumes us, and everything is mysterious and alive and fills us with desire and wonder, fear, and guilt. With the passing of the years, however, those memories become distant and malleable, and we shape them into the stories of who we are. We are brave, or we are cowardly. We are loving, or we are cruel” (138).
To the Bright Edge of the World, juxtaposes the experiences of the Colonel and his wife as they both seek new discoveries while awaiting the return of each other, formatted through diary entries, letters, and artifacts, Ivey outlines these relationships and the magical elements that form them.
An engaging book well worth a read, To the Bright Edge of the World exceeds my expectations. While the action of the Colonel’s adventures make Sophie’s elements drag at times as I hoped to quickly return to the frontier, the thematic focus of the novel makes for a fantastic read. We all have a little magic in us somewhere.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5