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 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 for depth of storytelling, characterization, effective use of sense
of place and myths, and brilliant manipulation of time throughout the book.
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:
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)