First published in 2016
My rating: 5 out of 5
The Short Of It:
I loved everything about this historical fiction novel, from the setting -- Alaska and Washington -- to the unique format to the engrossing story to the illustrations. One of my favorite reads this year.
The Long Of It:
I have a weakness for books set in cold, rugged climates, so I was immediately taken in by the gorgeous cover and Alaska setting of this stunning historical fiction novel.
I hardly even knew what I was getting myself into -- but what a treat it turned out to be! It's an epistolary novel, told mostly in journal entries with reports, articles and letters mixed in, along with photographs and illustrations that fit perfectly with the story.
The meat of the novel comes in detailed journal entries by Army Lt. Col. Allen Forrester, who leads a small expedition into uncharted Alaskan wilderness in 1885, and his wife, Sophie, who stays behind at the Vancouver Barracks in Washington Territory.
I absolutely loved vicariously traveling along with Allen on his harrowing adventures. His group encounters natives both friendly and violent, unforgiving ice, raging rivers, towering glaciers, starvation, cold, and fantastical elements drawn from native stories. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the wealth of Alaska Native American history and rich mythology. Women who turn into geese, men who turn into otters, a seemingly immortal raven-man who enjoys hijinks and kindness in equal parts -- I was fascinated by it all, as well as a peek at the natives' way of life before Alaska was bombarded with gold prospectors and missionaries.
Sophie is a naturalist and bird-lover, and her days spent tromping through the woods in search of nests are mystifying to the other officer's wives at the barracks. She's intellectual and independent, and she'd much rather be curled up with a book or seeking out birds than discussing fashion over tea. I actually enjoyed her portions of the book even more than her husband's -- I just completely fell in love with her. She's got resilience and moxie, and I was thrilled when, after a terrible tragedy occurs, she defies social mores and dives head first into the up-and-coming art form of photography, which gives structure to her days and provides an avenue of self expression and an outlet for her grief. Reading about the process of early photography was surprisingly engaging, and I was holding my breath each time Sophie attempted a photo.
On top of the great characters, riveting story, vibrant atmosphere and beautiful writing, I thought the book itself was unusually lovely. The pages are heavy, thick and smooth, and it was such a treat to turn the page and encounter a drawing or photo to perfectly complemented that part of the story.
"To the Bright Edge of the World" is a somewhat quiet and understated character- and setting-driven novel, but I was just as captivated reading it as I was some of my favorite action-packed edge-of-your-seat page-turners this year. If you like the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, if you like historical fiction, if you like adventure novels, if you like strong female characters, then I highly recommend this enchanting book!