“Backstrap was the best cut, my favorite, and Daddy sliced it off the deer’s spine as beautifully as Mama curled ribbons on presents.”

Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, four teens in Fairbanks and Southeast Alaska in 1965, are each stumbling through the aftermath of the loss of a parent or parents through death or divorce or negligence. The story is told in their alternating viewpoints, and the thing I liked most was the wealth of detail that comes with their Alaskan lifestyles. It is so immediate and rings so true to life that I was yanked instantly back into my childhood. (You know that scene in Ratatouille where the restaurant critic takes his first bite of the ratatouille and he is sucked instantly back to being a little boy at his mother’s table? Just like that.)

Ruth, whose father was killed in a plane crash on the way back from lobbying against statehood:

Backstrap was the best cut, my favorite, and Daddy sliced it off the deer’s spine as beautifully as Mama curled ribbons on presents.

Dora, Alaska Native daughter of abusive parents, who knows there is a better way:

In a village, it doesn’t matter who belongs to who. There are so many kids, they just bounce from house to house. If you happen to notice that your auntie’s new baby doesn’t’ look anything like her husband–but more like one of the guys from upriver who comes down in the spring to fish–you just smile and pinch his chubby cheeks anyway, because who cares?

Hank, whose father was lost at sea in the tsunami that followed the 1964 Earthquake, whose mother has settled on the least worthy substitute, and who takes draconian action to protect his younger brothers:

I don’t want to talk bad about my mom. I mean, I think she waited around for a while, hoping maybe Dad wasn’t really dead, but she gave up a lot sooner than me and definitely sooner than Sam.

Alyce, the aspiring ballerina who lives in Fairbanks with her mother and fishes out of Sitka every summer with her father:

It’s considered really bad manners to snoop and read other mariner’s [sic] charts. It’s the closest thing to a journal for men who trust no one but the sea. If you happen to climb aboard another boat and their chart is lying out on the table, you better not get caught looking directly at it. Men have been thrown overboard just for glancing.

I might take issue with the Disney-like orphanization (Is that even a word?) of all concerned and the Dickensian propensity for coincidence but Hitchcock’s mastery of the minutia of Alaska life and history renders those concerns negligible. That scene where that asshole Ray is sitting behind Dora in class? Will reduce you to helpless rage, but only because it rings so horribly true.

As poignant as it is funny and smart. Recommended.

Note:

All the adults in this novel are against statehood, but Alaskans voted for it six to one. Gruening’s speech probably sealed the deal (Let Us Now End American Colonialism, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/bartl…), wherein he compared Alaska to the 13 Colonies and Washington D.C. to King George. Let it never be said that hyperbole doesn’t have its place in Alaskan history.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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