Like her debut novel The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World is set in Alaska. This time, the main characters are not homesteaders, but a trio of soldiers making an expedition through the unexplored countryside along the Wolverine River. Part of the story also follows Sophie, the wife of the expedition’s leader Allen, who remains behind in Washington Territory.
Most of the story is told through Sophie and Allen’s diary entries, with occasional newspaper articles and letters back and forth between a descendant of the couple and an Alaskan museum curator. This epistolary format allows the reader to really get inside the heads of multiple characters, both during the time period of the expedition (1885) and in the present day.
Although this is primarily a historical fiction novel, there are some elements of magical realism. Ivey effectively uses these elements to emphasize how out of their depth the explorers are. The use of magical realism also ties into another of the book’s major themes: the divergent ways in which different cultures view the world. The strange things that Allen and his compatriots encounter are really only strange to them—to the Native American communities of the region, they’re just facts of life.
While Allen is traveling through the Alaskan wilderness, Sophie prepares for the birth of their first child and embarks on a study of photography. Unlike other early photographers, who were largely interested in portraiture, Sophie’s passion is for nature photography. Despite her (comparatively) urban setting, she finds just as much wonder in a bird sitting on its nest as Allen does in the massive glaciers and unbroken forests of Alaska. The beauty, power, and sometime danger of nature is one of the main threads that ties the two narratives of the book together. What these intertwined narratives give us is a compelling story about discovery, family, the interaction of cultures, and the ability to find mystery and transcendence in unexpected places.