Promise Me … Promise Me …. A Review of “The Raven’s Gift” & Interview With Author Don Rearden

Living Remotely

I’d like to start by completely laying my bias out on the table. I am an Alaskan. I have lived remotely. By “remotely,” I mean that I have lived in a dry cabin with only wood heat and propane lights that sometimes weren’t worth lighting. I once ran, stupidly unarmed, from the safety of a structure toward an enraged moose that was attempting to stomp my dog into canine dust. I’ve been left on a lonesome airstrip with food for a week and a promise that I’ll be picked up unless the weather closes in, and then it might be “awhile.” I’ve done the “subsistence thing” with salmon and berries and putting things up for the winter. I learned how wood heat is best because it “warms you thrice” — once while cutting, once while splitting, and once in the woodstove. I’ve lived on what I could produce on my 1.25 acres of wonderful near the Copper River.

At our most remote, we lived a 7-ish hour drive from Anchorage. Well, until we moved to Craig. While we’re currently only 4 hours from Ketchikan here (by car and then ferry, or only about 45 minutes by floatplane), I find Prince of Wales Island more remote because we’re beholding to someone else’s method of conveyance to get us to and from more-tightly-packed civilization. Then again, it was in the 7-hours-from-Anchorage place that we had the genny, the outhouse, the dry cabin, and the bears wandering in close proximity.

In the Copper River Valley, only 200 miles from Anchorage, but still in the Concrete Bush, I kept chickens. That’s important in this, because I was keeping chickens in 2006 when bird flu first raised a threatening aspect on the horizon.

“Those birds need killing,” one Ahtna Elder told me once.

I thought about Foxy Sox and Honey Bun and the other girls. No offense, but the boys had been easy kills. They were delicious and didn’t last long in our freezer. Killing the girls would have been more difficult. They were almost family. For years afterwards, my kids would stare down at the chicken on their plates.

“It’s no one you know,” I would assure them.

It’s important to know this about me before you read my review of Don Rearden’s book The Raven’s Gift, because I’m coming at it as an Alaskan who’s not been where his characters have been, but who’s thought about and did, at times, prepare for such an eventuality.

 

The Raven's Gift US Cover

The Raven’s Gift is not an easy read. It is a heart-wrenching, soul-splitting, hand-wringing story that will keep you turning pages and questioning just what is real and how you might react should the world devolve into the chaos of a bird flu pandemic threatening to reach even beyond the confines of western Alaska. John and Anna Morgan are teachers looking for an adventure. Their search lands them in a remote village on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. That much is clear, but the nightmare that becomes their shared experience sharpens so vividly that it is nothing short of startling. It is no spoiler to tell you that Anna dies. The fact that John is nearly alone as the book opens belies this. It is the promise she wrings from him before her death that weighs so heavy on his heart and, in a way, keeps him moving and surviving against impossible odds.

I will admit, about 50 pages in, I put the book down. I felt I could not continue. It is so stark, so bleak, so chilling that I thought there was no way I could finish it. It is that incredibly well-written. There’s an overarching sense of foreboding—a feeling that if these events have not already transpired, they will in the near future. The truth wedged between what could have been or could be is just too much to bear.

I set it down for a week.

I picked it up again, determined to forge on. I was not disappointed. As a reader, I was never at ease. How could I become comfortable within that desolation ravaged by disease and the all-too-human reaction to it? Yet, soon, even off-balance as I was in the setting of the story, I felt myself drawn along with the characters. I wanted to know what was going to happen. Like them, I wanted desperately to hope. Some of the events were inevitable. You just know in your bones what happens, but you still mutter, “No, no, no, don’t go there…” in the hopes the characters will hear you.

Heartbreakingly, they don’t.

Those are the surprises that are not the good kind—the kind that makes your breath catch and your eyes tear up. The story bleeds desperation. As John and his companions continue their journey out of what has become their Hell on Earth, you, as the participant-reader, are wondering what you can do to make it all turn out all right. But, you know there’s nothing you can do. You can only walk with them and hope.

Rearden weaves strands of Yup’ik mythology through the story. The culture and mythos intertwine with Alaska, coalescing into this entity that is at once setting and character. Rearden is highly adept in drawing his readers, outsiders to the culture, into the midst of the mysteries of the place. He shares ancient stories that, while known to many Alaskans, are unknown Outside. You don’t have to live here to appreciate the legends and the meanings. The stories transcend time and place, and Rearden tells even the most terrifying of them with such warmth and fondness that you feel like he’s introducing you to his cherished friends.

Some reviewers objected to the way the story “jumps” back and forth through time. I disagree. The mutable timeline is part of the charm and storytelling process that makes the book so effective. A linear telling would detract from the starkness and pathos. The breaks in the formatting prepare you for a shift in scene, and there are some scenes that are so horrific that the shift is a relief, if only for a moment, only to be made more poignant by an absence when the scene shifts again. I did wish that Anna’s request had remained obscure. John’s promise permeates the story and needs no moment of clarity or revelation.

Then, there’s the ending. Endings are hard, and there’s something about Native Alaskan motifs that, for me, require reading, re-reading, and close-reading. At first reading, I found the ending confusing. I put the book down. I picked it up the next day and read it again. I understood better. I put the book down for several hours and then read the ending again. Yes. That was what I needed. It’s not the the ending is obscure or difficult, it’s just that it weaves in so many layers, much like the ending of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf,  that I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing.

You’ll want to read this. You’ll want to not miss a thing.

Five Bloody Handprints

Five Bloody Handprints for depth of storytelling, characterization, effective use of sense

of place and myths, and brilliant manipulation of time throughout the book.

Rearden-Don

And now, without further ado, please welcome Associate Professor from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaskan Author Don Rearden to A Diamond in the Dark!

Amy: It is so nice to have you here! I thoroughly enjoyed The Raven’s Gift and your Alaska Book Week Presentation (I’m hoping it was taped somewhere–we’ll try to have the guys at UAF track that down if it was!). There were so many questions I wanted to ask you then, and I’m thrilled you’re here to meet everyone and let us get to know you! What sparked the idea for this book? Where did it come from?

Don:  I’ve long been haunted by Alaska’s neglect for the rural population and the decline of the indigenous culture with modernization and all the bells and whistles that come with Western culture. I grew up in Southwestern Alaska hearing the stories from survivors of the epidemics in the 1920’s and 1950’s and those also haunted me. I also couldn’t get past the notion that Alaska is ground zero if bird flu went pandemic, and how we didn’t seem to learn from our history and the losses of those other Alaskan sicknesses.

Amy: Did you have the story in mind first or did the characters precede it?

Don:  There is no novel without character. No story without a character in struggle. I had the idea of something bad happening in the bush before I wrote the book, but I didn’t know what or who it happened to until I wrote those first few opening lines. The same lines that are still there — and I was off and discovering the story with my characters.

Amy: How long did it take you to write the book?

Don: The initial draft probably took me about a year, but that came after rejection for my first novel. Those editors that rejected my initial book said they liked the writing and wanted to see more. I felt I had to deliver before they forgot my name.  It took a couple years after that for the novel to first come out with Penguin Canada.

Amy: Wow. Canada? What was the hardest part of writing the book?

Don: Selling it. The writing came easy. The hard part was getting the book published in the US. That took nearly five years and publication in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, before the US. So the waiting was difficult. Especially when readers here wanted the book and were having to pay so much money to import it from other countries.

Amy: See? Now that’s a fan base — when you actually have them importing the book because it wasn’t available in the US! Do you hear from your readers? What do they say?

Don: As the book continues to sell, the personal responses continue to trickle in. I cherish those emails and letters like little gems. My day is made any time I hear from a reader who was touched by the book. Some of the messages are so deeply moving. I never expected The Raven’s Gift to have such an effect on so many people. It’s been truly humbling. Just today I received an email that said, “YOUR NOVEL SETS A NEW BAR FOR ALASKA LITERATURE—ONE WE CAN HOPE WILL BE MAINTAINED BY OTHER YOUNG WRITERS. VELMA WALLIS TOUCHED THE DARK SIDE OF THE ‘OLD DAYS’ IN TWO WOMEN, BUT YOU BROUGHT ALASKA HISTORY FORWARD IN A NEW, BRUTALLY HUMAN WAY. YOUR OUTRAGE SEARS EVERY PAGE. THANK YOU.” (sorry it was all in caps!) I never in my wildest dreams expected to receive such amazing messages about my work.

Amy: And how do you hope your story impacts readers?

Don: That’s a fun question. Secretly I want them to lobby to get it banned from schools and libraries. That would me I finally made it as a writer. Just kidding. I guess I want readers to think about their own lives and how vulnerable we are in this way we’ve chosen to live. How we lost or left behind the ways that worked for humanity, and that there are still a few rare souls that remember how to live. Those are the people we should be learning from, and I’m talking about indigenous peoples here. I also would hope readers would take stock of their relationships and really love like there is no tomorrow. Mostly I want people to think about our children and how the real hope for our world lies within them and we need to learn how to love them and take care of them — essentially we need to protect them and cherish them at all cost.

Amy: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?

Don: I was born in Montana, but we moved up to Alaska when I was a kid. My mom taught in several Yup’ik villages. We’d live in these creepy old school houses that everyone in the village believed were haunted. Those were pretty magical times for me as a young boy. I spent my waking hours hunting or exploring outside. Initially some of the transition to the new culture was rough, but it didn’t take long for me to really love living on the tundra. It was an amazing childhood really. I had two loving parents, who made the wilderness a part of our existence. We hunted, fished, and camped together. We shared some pretty great adventures.

Amy: So, your childhood had quite a bit of influence on your writing?

Don: Definitely. Growing up with those tales Yup’ik elders told of surviving the epidemics? Having an abandoned village across the river from your house? That stuff never left me. My dad and his friends were always telling hunting and wilderness stories from various adventures, too. So all of that amounted to some of my own writing. Living those years in a culture of oral tradition also impacted me.

Amy: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer? Do you remember it?

Don: When I read Stephen King’s The Shining. That was the summer of second grade. After that I was pretty much ruined and wanted to be like him and scare people. That was really all I wanted to do for about as long as I can remember. Of course that and fly jets after Top Gun came out. My mom was a great teacher and my dad a storyteller, and they never discouraged me.

Amy: I could really pick up on the King influences in the book. What other writers do you like?

Don: In terms of the way that I think about my work, I’d have to say Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael. His work and his mentoring of me has had a profound effect on the nature and scope of my novel writing. I grew up devouring every Stephen King book I could get my hands on, and now like Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Boyden, Seth Kantner, and Sherman Alexie. I’m also fortunate to have had some other great writers as mentors and friends along the way, and those writers have also influenced me just in terms of guidance and inspiration.

Amy: How do you write? Do you have a process?

Don: Can you say, manic? I don’t have one. I’m totally manic. I might write for ten hours one day, then not for two weeks, then for a half month long stretch write for a couple hours every day. Those month long stretches are when I usually finish a project. In short, I have no routine. I need one. Perhaps I’ll start tomorrow.

Amy: (I love that answer). What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Don: I love to skate ski and ride bikes. I like to be out in the wilderness, which isn’t as easy now that I live in Anchorage, but I can still get away here. I like spending time with my family and listening to my two year old son laugh. I love to travel throughout Alaska, with an occasional visit to somewhere tropical like Hawaii.

Amy: Ah! Fun! Two is such an epic age! Enjoy it because it all moves faster than the blink of an eye! What can we see from you in the future?

Don: I have a new novel finished. Moving Salmon Bay, it’s about a village preparing to relocate due to climate change. I’ve got an action thriller I’m just wrapping up, and a literary novel about Arctic whaling in the works. I hope you’ll also be hearing news about a Raven’s Gift movie at some point.

Now, you see–I lobbied for that on the 49 Writers/Alaska Book Week site back in October, for The Raven’s Gift movie. I think it would be fantastic!

Thank you for visiting! Thanks to Don Rearden first for writing such an evocative book and second for taking the time to talk with me here! Get to know Don in the following places:

On his Amazon Author Page where you can also buy The Raven’s Gift

Follow him on Twitter: @donrearden

Make sure to LIKE The Raven’s Gift on Facebook!

Don is also giving away a Kindle copy of The Raven’s Gift to a lucky commenter on this post! Leave a comment for a chance to win! 

(All Diamond In The Dark random drawings are conducted using the Random Number Generator at Trinity College in Dublin. Comments open until Noon on Sunday, November 17, 2013. Winner(s) notified by email)

 

Coffin Hop Day 5: The Ghosts of Kuskulana

The Ghosts of KuskulanaII

I grew up reading William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft. Anyone who has read The Fishing Widow knows the influence of Hodgson goes beyond Mike Passarella’s quote from The Ghost Pirates. Indeed, The Fishing Widow is a marriage of that book and Moby Dick (among other stories). I wrote the original version of The Ghosts of Kuskulana back in May. It was a short story for submission to a New Adventures of Carnacki Anthology. I am thrilled to report that the story will appear in Carnacki: The New Adventures due out from Ulthar Press in early 2014! I am also thrilled to tell you that I found this out last night whilst I was mixing the last of this collaboration between myself and the venerable Axel AR Howerton.

My husband is also a Carnacki fan. After reading the original draft of Ghosts, he set down the manuscript, smiled at me, and said, “Please marry me and bear my children.” I laughed. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?” He winked. “I love you so much right now.”

So, this was also an exercise in writing something that both of us wanted to read: an adventure for Hodgson’s Carnacki, The Ghost Finder set in the Alaskan wilderness.

The background: In 1912, Carnacki is summoned by a wealthy syndicate to investigate the paranormal goings-on that are affecting the transportation and commerce of a copper-rich mine in Interior Alaska. While Carnacki bristles under the imperial tone of the summons, he receives a desperate telegram from the manager of the Alaskan concern. Intrigued, he travels to The Great Land. What he finds is a chilling tragedy of loss, murder, and a Supernatural Echo that draws him into its Darkness.

The audio short story is presented as part reading/part atmospheric drama. The telling is well within the vein of the original Carnacki stories. My undying affection goes out to Axel Howerton for his time and talented reading of the story.

I truly hope you all enjoy it.

And, of course, since it is Coffin Hop, there is a contest! Please comment as to what is your favorite Paranormal Investigation story–be it Hodgsonian, Lovecraftian, or a modern day telling.

**As an aside, I ship anywhere in the world, so if you are beyond the US and Canada, no worries, I can get the prize to you!**

The prize today is three fold:

A container of Death Mints Death-Mints_3186-l

One of the Steampunk-inspired (but not this one) Coffins!

steampunk_coffin

…and … one of the DesignClinic UK Bronze Skulls! (These are small, just so you know, but they are oh, so EPIC-LY COOL!)

DesignClinicBronzeSkull

Happy Coffin Hop! Keep hoppin’!

Happy Alaska Day (and a Giveaway)

Happy Alaska Day 2

♫ Eight stars of gold on a field of blue –
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes, and the flow’rs nearby;
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams, The precious gold of the hills and streams;
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The “Bear” – the “Dipper” – and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
Over land and sea a beacon bright.
Alaska’s flag – to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier. ♫

~ Music: Elinor Dusenbury

Lyrics: Marie Drake

 

Happy Alaska Day!

On October 18, 1867, the United States took control of the Alaska Territory, which it had purchased from the Russians back on Seward’s Day (March 30, 1867) for a staggering 2¢ per acre. At the time, Seward was ridiculed and derided for wasting the government’s money on an ice chest of little importance. “Seward’s Folly” they called it. And, it’s not that the Russians were ignorant about the whole thing–it’s that they were realists. Think about 1867. The Crimean War was little more than 11 years behind them, the population of British Columbia was increasing, and Alexander II and his advisors figured (rightly) that any other conflict with the British would involve the loss of their American territories (i.e. Alaska) without compensation. And then there was the enormous debt to the Rothschilds… It was the perfect storm of suck in the international affairs sphere that allowed Seward to sweep in and make the case for the purchase. Still, politicians and popular support in the Lower 48 continued to ride against him. Good thing he was a stubborn son of a buck.

But, European involvement in The Great Land extends further back. Yes, the Russians were here, the Americans were here clandestinely and then properly with the purchase from the Russians, but there was another group here that not many realize were here: The Spanish. Did you think I was making all that up? I thought it was strange when we first moved to Craig that I looked out on Bucareli Bay and the island San Juan Bautista, that there’s Sumez Island, Núňez Rocks, and the Canal de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Channel of Our Lady of Carmel) that people in the area might know as Clarence Strait. Bocas de Apodaca are the twin mouths of Moira and Cholmondeley Sounds, El Cap (the cave and all) is short for El Capitan, and San Christoval Channel (St. Christopher) is the channel that runs between San Fernando and Prince of Wales Islands. But it’s not so strange when you realize the Spanish were here in the late-1700s. But … do you know why they were here?

ThroughSpanishEyes

Because there are more demands on fiction to make sense more than real life, I found it necessary to figure out just what a group of monks were doing on the fictional San Angelo Island in the late-1700s. If you’ve read The Fishing Widow, you’re familiar with Josh Padgett’s story of The Reach. If not, please click up above and read it. I’ll wait. Okay, got it? Now, what you need to know is that there is an actual Deadman’s Reach. There is a similar story, similar but not too similar that happened among the Russians. If you drink Raven’s Brew Coffee, you’ll know the story from the packaging. Yes, the Russians were acting inappropriately, and yes, they were poisoned by shellfish (I’m pretty sure it was blue mussels in that instance, too), and yes, they tried to get away and made it to Deadman’s Reach where most of them succumbed to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. But, I digress. What were those (fictional) Spanish guys doing on (fictional) San Angelo Island way back when? Well, I’m writing a sequel of sorts, but in order to get to the sequel, you have to understand how it all started… And here is the why on the most basic of levels:

 ~~~~

“The King commands it,” he said without looking up, his dark eyes trained on the paper spread across his desk, his thick northern accent betraying the heritage of the Pyrenees. He thoughtfully dipped his quill in an inkwell and scratched at the paper. The silence within the ornate great room was palpable before he continued, “And as I am the King’s servant–”

“King Charles’ servant or de Godoy’s servant?” The brown-robed priest stood patiently across the desk. He shifted slightly on his feet, the movement not unnoticed by the finely dressed official.

The priest looked as the official had imagined, yet why he was to summon this priest specifically was something he could not imagine. The priest was tall, thin, clean-shaven with intensely dark, brown eyes and a face mapped with all his forty-five years had witnessed.

The light beyond the windows shifted restlessly though leaves shot through with the colors of autumn. The effect of the light dappled against the marble floor, diffused by the sheer draperies that hung motionless against the windows. Behind the official, a fire crackled and popped against the grate, warming the carved soapstone mantle graced with a coat of arms and threaded with what looked like leaves of ivy.

The official did not ostensibly look up at the priest. He kept his eyes trained diligently on his paper; the hand that held the quill stabbed at the ink well. The priest waited. He was not unused to his presence achieving such effect.

“He is the one,” de Godoy had insisted days earlier when the official, barely daring to raise the face he kept bowed, had been ordered into the royal presence.

The official had shot a sidelong glance at the Queen of Spain who sat, unmovable, as her lover paced the room. He quickly turned his gaze back to the floor. “One priest is the same as another, sir,” he had started.

De Godoy stopped pacing. “Then you know nothing of their Order. You will send for him,” de Godoy continued with a brisk nod, “and you will send him on.”

In the silent, dimly lit great room, the official hesitated, his quill twitching in irritation.  He glanced at the red robed Cardinal who sat, his hands folded serenely in his lap, in a chair behind the priest. “I endeavor to separate myself from those affairs of state.”

Father Michele Rodriquez’s lip twisted into a smile and he bowed his head quickly. “Of course,” he managed.

“Spain’s claim to the far north of the Pacific coast is far more ancient than these upstarts’,” the Cardinal cut across Father Rodriquez as if he had not spoken.

Father Michele cleared his throat before he turned and made a deep obeisance, keeping his head bowed. “His Eminence is referring to the papal bull of 1493.”

The official smiled in spite of himself, realizing his earlier pun had escaped him. “Forgive me, Father Rodriquez,” he said, gentling his voice as Father Rodriquez turned back toward him, “but with all the bother of the French and Napoleon and the coming war with Britain, can you blame their majesties for wanting to tighten their God-given grip beyond Europe?”

Father Michele waited patiently.

“This,” the official waved his hand as if at an irksome fly, “United States of America, so self-styled a democracy, is merely an experiment doomed to failure. While Spain continues to press the advantages of her colonies to the south, there is no doubt that commodities in the northern climes beckon.”

“Commodities?” Father Michele echoed.

“Furs, whale oil, all the things the damnable Russians and the Golikov-Shelikhov Company are after, Padre,” the official replied, the irritation returning momentarily to his voice. “Our ships have sailed from Central America, past our holdings in California.” Father Michele watched as the man placed the quill on his desk and folded his hands together. The man smiled. It was a smile Michele returned. “I am the Queen’s man, since the King gives no thought for his government. As I was entrusted by the Crown with the continued exploration of the north, so I entrust the civilizing of the savages to you, Father Rodriquez.”

“Civilizing?” Father Michele’s brow tilted.

“We can’t have them all cast into the Pit because of some misunderstanding of salvation, can we, Father? Rumor has it that Baranov is bringing Russian Orthodox missionaries to live among them. A bastion of heresy within the bounds of a Spanish protectorate would be,” the Cardinal hesitated, “unfortunate.”

“I’ve read our commanders’ journals, Eminence,” Father Rodriquez continued carefully. “These are not men who suffer strangers to exist in their midst.”

“I have complete confidence in you, Padre,” the Cardinal said as the man at the desk bent his head back to the paper in front of him. “You and your Brethren.”

“And if we fail, we are at least expendable.”

“A foothold, Father,” the official replied, his voice becoming more grave. “The Crown is seeking a foothold—to stop the Russians, to stop the Americans, to press the Spanish right and restore some of her former glory,” he took a breath, his eyes darkening, “and the French be damned.”

“Queen Maria Luisa’s man,” Father Rodriquez said softly.

The man’s lip twisted. “I daresay that de Godoy is her man, Padre, in every Biblical sense of the word.” He sighed and picked up the quill, dipping it distractedly into the inkwell. “Better we are here, Padre. Better you go to the north and freeze with the savages than face the horror that is coming to Europe.”

“There are men who say this is the most illuminated time in the history of mankind,” Father Michele said evenly. His lip twitched into a smile as the Cardinal behind him drew an audible breath. The official’s fingers tightened around his quill. He took a breath before he raised his face, training his gaze past Father Rodriquez toward the Cardinal whose knuckles had begun to whiten against the arms of the chair.

“Even now, I begin to see what their majesties saw in you, Father,” the official said, his voice barely rising above a whisper.

Michele continued to smile quietly as he placed his hand flat against his chest and bowed slightly. The official set his teeth and nodded brusquely.

“We are four years from the end of the eighteenth century, Father Rodriquez,” he continued. He bit at his lip and continued to scratch at the paper. “I do not believe you and I will see the nineteenth.”

 ~~~~

…and so the next bit of the story starts. It’s far darker than The Fishing Widow, and (at least for me) far more terrifying. But, it’s what happens when good people want to do good things but hold themselves to such a high standard that the standard itself is unattainable and that makes the falling short of it just that much more horrific.

While this post didn’t go anywhere I thought it would go, it went and I followed. But, in the end, it’s Alaska Day! It’s also a day I celebrate a place so rife with stories and atmosphere and potential that it’s stunning to me that not every writer on the planet clamors to live and work here. So, in celebration of Alaska Day, I’m holding a giveaway so you can enjoy a bit of Alaska, too! All you have to do is leave a comment (how easy is that?) on this post about where you would most like to go in The Great Land if someone handed you tickets to Alaska. The prize? Well, I happen to have a Raven’s Brew Coffee Deadman’s Reach prize pack:

DMR Prize Pack

 

Happy Alaska Day!