(These are my Alaska and North Dakota picks for my Make America Read Again challenge – to read the full list of books this year, click here.)
January certainly started out with a wintry bang, didn’t it? Bomb cyclones and government shut downs aside, it’s been a rather lovely start to 2018 in our household. Despite a relatively harried holiday and work schedule, C and I managed a few days of rest and recovery…and, of course, reading. We both had been feeling more than slightly burnt out with work and routine, which is honestly why I haven’t been updating this little blog of mine lately. We are used to having the time on weekends to travel and explore, but now that Charles is becoming more involved in his firm that means a whole lot of weekend work for him (and weekend boredom for me). On a non-work related note, I was also getting SUPER burnt out from reading all of the American lit for this year’s reading project…although I do love me some American bravado, in my heart I will always choose Brit or French lit as my true love.
But after planning a couple of exciting adventures together for the spring (more on those in a few weeks) and me taking a reading break with some strategic Netflix binges of “The Crown” and “The Great British Baking Show,” we’re feeling energized and motivated for this year.
Since the long, dreary winter nights have fallen upon us, I wanted to combine a couple of my cold-weather Make America Read Again selections together in the hopes that they will help you survive Seasonal Affective Disorder. I actually usually enjoy reading meatier, noir-like stories in the winter (AKA: I like sad books), so these are rather the exceptions to my normal reading routine. Without further ado, here are my readings for Alaska and North Dakota
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
This was one of the last books I finished in 2017, and I’m so glad I ended the year with such a delightful read! The Snow Child takes place in 1920’s Alaska, where an aging couple named Jack and Mabel are struggling to survive their marriage and their new brutal yet beautiful home in the Alaskan wilderness. Mabel, a daughter of intellectuals and brought up in city life, concocted the idea to move to Alaska with her husband. They suffered from multiple miscarriages and, now past the point of child-bearing years, desperately needed a change. However, the frontier life proves to be more lonely and back-breaking than either Jack or Mabel could have imagined, and their marriage is slowly tearing at the seams with the stress and desperation.
On the afternoon of the first snowfall, however, Jack and Mabel share a moment of whimsy and decide to build a snow-girl, even adorning their creation with Mabel’s red scarf. The next day, they wake up to a pile of crumbling snow, a stolen scarf and what appears to be a mischievous child running away. Assuming it was a neighboring child, Jack and Mabel carry on with their daily life, getting to know their neighbors and fellow settlers, until the girl, named Faine, reappears and gradually becomes a routine visitor in their homestead.
But Faina appears to have stepped straight out of a fairy tale, wandering among the forest like an adult huntsman, and none of the other Alaskan settlers have heard or seen her. Is she a runaway? A hallucinatory result of Jack and Mabel’s cabin fever? An otherworldly spirit? Intertwining magical realism and mystery, this novel had me grinning and tearing up in equal measure.
Eowyn Ivey is a masterful writer. Upon first blush, I wasn’t sure I was going to love this book – the few types of books I don’t enjoy reading are those that are set in the “wild west” (the exception being Little House on the Prairie because Ma Ingalls was a boss lady). Do y’all remember those Call of the Wild and My Side of the Mountain books from elementary school? Yeah, I despised those. I didn’t need to read about hunting or gathering or building my own canoe. I wanted to read of castles and battles and socialites. And when I read the back cover of The Snow Child, I was worried there would be too much of the whole hunting, gathering thing.
But I was wrong – yes, this is set in a time and place where they slaughtered their own meat and built their own house, but Eowyn’s prose is so beautiful and captivating that I actually was almost interested in Jack’s hunting strategies. Plus, the central story is about a childless couple finding a way to create a family in an unexpected, magical way – and who doesn’t love a story like that?!?
Read if you like: stories of redemption, magical realism, cozy feel-good stories that aren’t overly sugary sweet
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The first thing I noticed from this novel’s reviews is how incredibly polarizing of a story it is. Half of the reviews I read absolutely ripped this book to shreds, while the other half extolled the endless virtues and genius of Mr. Enger. I’m not surprised by these strong reactions, because to be completely honest with you, my opinions fluctuated with the turn of the pages.
The story centers around one family living in the deeply cold Western USA. It is set in the early 60’s, apparently, though I had a hard time for a good part of the book figuring out the actual time period. The father, Jeremiah, is supposed to be incredibly intellectual, yet due to a sign from God he quit his academic pursuits and instead became a janitor at his kids’ high school. The mother abandoned the family shortly after Jeremiah’s decision. That left the three kids, Davy, Reuben, and Swede, to help their father tend house and make ends meet. Reuben is the narrator of our story, looking back as an adult on the unique events his family endured at one point in their lives.
Reuben is an asthmatic, and on the day of his birth was actually was thought to be still-born as he wasn’t breathing for several minutes. The doctors pronounced him unable to survive. However, due to his father’s prayers and miracle-working (more on that later), Reuben suddenly begins to breathe, and somehow suffers no brain damage despite the many minutes his infant body had remained blue and deprived of oxygen. It does result in his continued “swampy lungs,” and this shortness of breath comes to play in several key moments of the book.
One day Davy’s girlfriend is attacked by a pair of local bullies. Jeremiah, the ever-present custodial staff member, witnesses the attack and miraculously comes to the rescue. He defends the girl and fends off the two wayward students, who react by taunting and threatening Jeremiah’s entire family. A crime results, and Davy ends up on the run in the Wild West with the FBI (and his family) close behind. Imagine Butch Cassidy in the Dakota Badlands and you’re getting the drift.
Honest confession: for the first half of the novel, I was deeply frustrated. Perhaps I was in the wrong kind of mood for this book. I think I temporarily forgot that this book was targeted to teenagers and not adults, because many of my qualms have to do with the lack of nuance and subtlety in the plot points. The book is deeply religious, and Jeremiah is an over-the-top obvious Christ-like symbol. I’m a religious person, I love fiction that explores Christianity and spirituality like Marilynne Robinson and John Irving do, but for some reason I temporarily got really hung up on the blatant divine interventions that happened in this book. It made me feel like I was back in high school, breaking down the obvious symbols in The Scarlet Letter – this guy is bad so he represents the Devil and Temptation, this character is good so they represent Jesus. I didn’t like how Swede was painted as an 11 year old literary genius, like a copycat Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, or how Reuben only seemed to get short of breath when it was convenient to add suspense to the story’s situation. So I let these plot points irritate me and I overlooked the fact that the prose was beautiful and at times laugh-out-loud witty.
But then, about halfway through, something finally clicked. I think I finally remembered that this book was in fact, not the latest adult NYT release but instead, a book catered to middle grade and young adult readers. And for some reason, that helped me let go of my snobbish literary hang-ups and just enjoy a story about tragedy and redemption. I also started noticing that there was SOME subtlety in the book – in one scene Reuben clearly begins to understand that good and evil is not black and white when it comes to mankind. On the final pages of this book, I ended up weeping at the beauty of the ending and felt ALL THE FEELINGS about the final event.
…that is to say, I still don’t think this book is perfect for me (I typically don’t enjoy YA a whole lot anyway). Too many plot points were left with weak explanations for my taste, and the miracles were just too over-the-top for me to keep my “suspension of disbelief” in tact. HOWEVER, I do think this book is perfect for quite a few avid readers, if you don’t have the same pet peeves I do.
Read if: You enjoy YA and religious fiction, stories about family endurance and survival, Wild West adventures