Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is inspired by the real life journey of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester through Alaska’s unchartered territory in the 1880s. Ivey’s blend of fact with fiction results in a gripping novel.
The narrative unfolds by alternating between Forrester’s journal entries, his wife’s diary entries, the ramblings of an emotionally distressed member of Forrester’s team, descriptions of artifacts, and a series of letters between one of Forrester’s modern day descendants and the exhibits curator at the Alpine Historical Museum in Alpine, Alaska. The constant shifts in perspectives present an initial challenge to the reader, but it isn’t long before one settles into the rhythm of the book and is able to follow with ease. The narrative technique enables the reader to hear the unique voices of each of the characters and to view circumstances through their eyes. The two most prominent entries are those of Forrester and Sophie, his wife.
As Forrester and a small group of men trek through Alaska’s interior along the Wolverine River, Forrester records the journey in his journal. These journal entries describe the grandeur, wildness, and breathtaking scenery that is Alaska. The vivid detail immerses the reader in raging rivers, majestic mountains, rugged terrain, extreme seasonal changes in weather; encounters with wild animals; and the experience of hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, and sheer exhaustion. And as they trek through unchartered territory, Forrester and his men interact with tribes of indigenous people, some of who are understandably suspicious of the white man’s intentions.
Forrester also includes out-of-this world experiences that have no rational explanations—a woman whose arm reveals her goose feathers; a trickster raven whose intermittent and implausible appearances thread their way throughout the novel. Forrester hints these may be hallucinations caused by exhaustion, hunger, and/or dehydration. Or maybe not.
Meanwhile, Forrester’s wife, Sophie, anxiously awaits his return at the Vancouver Barracks. Her diary entries reveal her own set of challenges. Refusing to conform to the chauvinistic constrictions placed on her gender, she forges her own path. She converts her pantry into a dark room, purchases a camera and all the necessary equipment, and pursues her passion of photographing birds. By the time her husband returns from his expedition several months later, Sophie has made a name for herself as an accomplished bird photographer whose photographs are included in a number of scientific journals and magazines.
It is a testament to Eowyn Ivey’s remarkable skills and wide range as a writer that this novel differs significantly from her previous novel, The Snow Child. Both novels capture the mystery of Alaska and its breathtaking topography in language vividly descriptive of the land and its people. And both inject an element of magical realism into the narrative. But there the similarity ends.
To the Bright Edge of the World blends adventure, exploration, history, folklore, ethnography, and an endearing love story between two people that transcends time and distance. And to remain authentic to the historical period, Ivey does not shy away from depicting the insidious racism of the colonizers chomping at the bit to subjugate the indigenous people, appropriate their land, and strip it of its natural resources.
Ivey transplants the reader to a different time and a different place. The novel shifts seamlessly between the various formats. The writing is engaging, vivid, and, at times, poetic. The research is extensive. The characters are fully developed, each speaking with a unique and engaging voice as to be able to step off the page. Ivey’s blend of fact with fiction coupled with her skilled execution combine to make this a compelling read.