Perched high on a ridge overlooking the Matanuska River valley about 2 1/2 hours north of Anchorage, novelist Eowyn LeMay Ivey takes a deep breath and scans the landscape.
To the southwest, the crumbling terminus of the huge Matanuska glacier perches above its namesake river, having pushed its way downhill more than 25 miles from its origin in the high spires of the Chugach Mountains. To the northeast, the valley opens up into a vast, seemingly impenetrable taiga of black spruce and soggy bottomlands that stretch to the horizon. To the west are the massive, buttressed flanks of the Talkeetna Mountains, a wedge of upthrust peaks, ridges and high glaciers separating the Matanuska and Susitna river valleys.
“It’s not easy to convey what this feels like, to be a tiny part of this big picture,” Ivey says, doing a slow 360-degree spin with her arms outstretched, her hands slowly framing the vista like a pair of bookends. “The scope and the magnitude of this place can be almost overwhelming at times as a writer. And those feelings of beauty and awe always get counterbalanced in equal measure by the brutal reality of how short life can be here.”
Everything about Alaska feels big; this state was constructed to a different scale than the rest of the country. The raw beauty of the landscape is inescapable; so too is the feeling that even now, at the height of summer, it is an unforgiving place.
“Even after living here my whole life there are times, especially in the winter, when I get a bit perplexed by my attachment to rural Alaska,” Ivey says. “Alaska is the only place I feel at home, but it’s not for everyone.”
And Ivey is about as “home-grown Alaskan” as you can get. Her playground growing up near the small town of Chickaloon, population about 270, was the mile-wide expanse of the Matanuska floodplain, an interwoven system of shallow braided channels, cobble bars and small islands.
From the time she was old enough to hunt and fish, her summer vacations consisted of family caribou hunts near Denali or netting salmon on the Copper River. Ivey got her first caribou at 16.
“Our objective on summer vacations was to fill the freezer for the winter,” she says. “Everything we caught or killed, we ate, whether it was caribou or moose or bear or salmon or halibut. In rural Alaska, hunting and fishing aren’t just hobbies or activities, they are done for subsistence.”
Not surprisingly, given the state’s overwhelming natural majesty, the magic inherent to Alaska’s landscape is ultimately at the core of each of Ivey’s two novels.
Her debut novel, “The Snow Child,” a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, is about two childless 1920s Matanuska valley homesteaders whose lives are changed forever after a young girl emerges from the woods near their cabin. It’s an Alaskan take on a classic Russian fairytale.
Her most recent novel, “To the Bright Edge of the World,” tells the story of an 1885 U.S. Army expedition up the fictional Wolverine River in an effort to open up the interior of a region only recently purchased from Russia. As the expedition plunges deeper into an almost otherworldly landscape, the group begins to understand that they are in a land where Western ideas of reality and science have given way to the mythical elements and lore of Alaska’s indigenous peoples.
In both books, Alaska itself is the force that imbues the characters and their world with a magical realism that takes the reader, literally and figuratively, to places that can’t be found on any map.
“With ‘Bright Edge,’ I wanted to ask, what would it be like for a military expedition to not just explore the unmapped landscape of Alaska, but to actually walk into the stories of the indigenous people who already lived here,” she says.
As she was working on the novel, Ivey reached out to her friend Argent Kvasnikoff, a visual artist and member of the Ninilchik Dena'ina tribe. “We had a long, thoughtful discussion about what it means to grow up in Alaska with Native ancestry, and he really inspired me and helped me approach aspects of the book in a new way. In many ways, he inspired my character Josh in the novel.”
The desire to tell stories is what brought Ivey to Western in 1991. After graduating from high school, Western seemed like the perfect choice; not too big, not too small, far from home but not too far. Her husband of 24 years, Sam, who was then a sophomore at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, was persuaded to transfer to Western, where he got his degree in biology. Sam Ivey, ’93, is now an area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Palmer.
“That first year we just loaded up our beat-up pickup truck and drove south,” Eowyn Ivey says. “Every time we went back (to Bellingham) we’d pack our huge coolers full of moose and caribou and salmon to take back with us, and, frankly it sort of freaked out a lot of people in Bellingham. Not everyone understood that this was the food we had eaten all our lives. There was a strong anti-hunting sentiment on campus, and it was a source of painful culture shock for me.”
Both her parents have degrees in writing, and she started out focused on creative writing herself, but soon moved into journalism.
“I loved the structure of it, and I learned so much at Western that I didn’t realize at the time was setting up the building blocks for what I would end up doing with my fiction,” Ivey says.
After graduating with a journalism degree in 1995, she started a six-week internship at her local newspaper, the Frontiersman in Palmer and Wasilla, which turned into a full-time reporting job.
“When I was in junior high, I always imagined wanting to get out of Alaska. And I’m glad we did leave and go to Western. It was a great experience. But by the time I graduated, we both were ready to come back here. Alaska was just too much a part of who we were,” she says.
After 10 years at the Frontiersman, covering school boards, city council meetings, and every kind of local news, Ivey began to feel a desire to work outside the boundaries of journalism.
“I had always loved fiction, and the structure of my job began to feel a bit like shackles,” Ivey says. So she left the newsroom and began a 10-year stint at a nearby bookstore, Fireside Books in Palmer, where she could work during the day and begin writing fiction at night.
As a bookseller, she felt she had realistic hopes for her work: Maybe a small, regional publisher could get her books out into the world.
But there she was at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in 2011, where she was discussing her latest project across a table from literary agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management in New York City. Kleinman wanted to see a few chapters; she was totally unprepared. But after a mad scramble that involved her husband logging on to Ivey’s computer and sending her a few files, she was able to get Kleinman what he wanted. Then he wanted more.
“I was shocked,” she says. “He was excited about the novel, though, and it all ended up working out.”
“The Snow Child” was published in 2012 by Little, Brown & Co. to rave reviews and numerous awards, including a nomination for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When her publicist told her the news about being a finalist for the Pulitzer, Ivey was in disbelief, and her mother even more so.
“I called, and I said ‘Guess what, Mom? My book is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize,’ and she thought I was pulling her leg,” she says. “I guess in retrospect I can hardly blame her. Over the years I have played a lot of pranks on her.”
Beautiful, Dangerous, Unforgiving
Even as the news about the Pulitzer began to sink in and she garnered other honors such as the International Author of the Year at the United Kingdom’s National Book Awards, her gears were already spinning for her next project, and “Bright Edge” began to take shape.
Ivey said she knew it would be a much different kind of story than “The Snow Child,” and would involve the complicated task of flipping back and forth not only between different characters but different timelines, as much of the story unfolds from records of the expedition being viewed in the present day.
As is often the case, such a difficult and challenging endeavor hit a snag—the book began to unravel before her eyes. She needed inspiration.
“The fictional river in ‘Bright Edge’ sits very close and follows a similar path to the Copper River, and the two rivers share many of the same attributes: beautiful, dangerous and unforgiving. To move forward, I needed to immerse myself in what the expedition would have been seeing and feeling,” she says. Thanks to an artist grant from the Alaska-based Rasmuson Foundation, Ivey and her husband were able to spend eight days floating a remote section of the Copper River.
The sights, sounds and smells from the trip—from glaciers to grizzlies and even an epic sandstorm—filled a notebook. Hundreds of pictures were taken.
When they got home, the logjam was broken. “Bright Edge” was published in 2016, again to widespread praise, being named an American Library Association Notable Book, a BookPage Best Book for 2016, a Washington Post Notable Book, a Library Journal Top 10 Book for 2016 and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers 2017 Book of the Year.
At Home in Chickaloon
Despite the accolades, Ivey remains very much at home in Chickaloon. The house she and Sam share with their two daughters—Grace, just left for McGill University in Montreal to study opera singing, and Aurora, 10, got her first caribou this summer—and two golden retrievers is a former seasonal cabin that they have been renovating for 10 years.
The storage shed down the hill from their house has a black bear hide nailed to it (“Have you ever had bear? It’s delicious.”). Another bear, this one presumably still meandering through the Alaskan bush somewhere, briefly set up camp in their yard earlier in the summer. Ivey lives just a few miles from the house she grew up in, which she proudly says was built by her father—in fact, he hand-dug the foundation with a shovel. And when he needed help, well, that’s what neighbors are for.
“Here, we all work together. Because it’s really, really hard to do it alone,” she says.
Last year, a group of neighbors came over to help the Iveys with some electrical wiring issues in their house. Earlier in the summer, the neighborhood converged on a neighbor en masse to help put a roof on his wife’s art studio.
“That’s a great example of why I live where I live, and why I probably always will,” she says. “Alaskans, by their nature, are incredibly self-sufficient and take an enormous amount of pride in that fact. But at the same time, I’ve never seen people who are more willing to give of themselves to help a friend or neighbor.”
That reality about the natural beauty that surrounds her is why Ivey rarely goes for a hike without her rifle and never without bear spray. She knows that falling off a raft in the Copper River could mean a quick death because there is so much sediment in the frigid water, the silt attaches to your clothes like a plaster cast in seconds. She knows a sunny spring day in the mountains can turn into a blizzard in 10 minutes, and that you always plan for it, no matter where you are.
She knows all these things, and she wouldn’t change any of them.
“These are the realities I live with and which make up the core foundation of my work,” she says, gazing across miles of open taiga at the distant, snowy ramparts of the Chugach. “I want my writing to reflect Alaska, its places, its history and its people. But like all writers, I have no idea if I'll publish another novel. I have to find a story I think is worth telling, and a way to do it that is interesting and exciting to me. I can never take any of that for granted.”