To the Bright Edge of the World has a lot going on at once, but it works so well. The main story is twofold. Colonel Allen Forrester has been sent by the U.S. government to explore the untouched reaches of Alaska in the 1880’s. His wife, Sophie, stays at the army barracks in Portland, Oregon while Forrester completes his mission. Both characters keep journals and occasionally write to each other. These letters and journal entries are in chronological order, and the “meta story” is that it is now current day. One of Forrester’s descendants, Walt Forrester, is now an old man, and he wants to give his uncle Forrester’s collection of belongings to an Alaskan museum. Walt sends the objects to Josh, the museum curator. Both Walt and Josh also send letters to each other, giving rise to their own stories and troubles in the present while they speculate on Allen and Sophie’s story from the artifacts and letters left behind. On top of the two timelines of correspondence, the novel is interspersed with other artifacts, pictures, and poems that make the two separate stories feel realistically tied together.
This book does so many things right or near-perfectly that it was easily a five star read for me. The main characters, Allen, Sophie, Walt, and Josh had easily distinguishable and unique voices. There were a few letters and entries from side characters that rounded out parts of the narrative, and they, too, had unique and engaging narrative voices. I was a little worried that I would miss not having as much exposition in a novel that takes place in the beautiful Alaskan wilderness, but the characters actually describe a lot of sights and sounds vividly in their writing to each other. Allen is exploring the wilderness, so his descriptions are actually needed in journal entries to feel faithful anyway. Sophie is a bit of an artist, so she also provides lyrical descriptions in her journal entries. All of the characters do a fair bit of reflection and introspection in their journals as well, so it is easy to see inside their minds. I adored how you could read between the lines in their writings and see even more of the story unfold. If a character’s journal entry is short, lacks certain events other characters mention, or if they skipped a few days of writing, it makes you wonder what happened that day and why they excluded something. The depth of the world and the characters’ lives travel far outside of what is written on the page.
I have to mention the amount of indigenous people and their culture in the novel. I was a little worried that they would not be portrayed well. I’m not an indigenous person, so I cannot say for sure if this is true, but I felt like the author did a good job of representing their unique cultures in a respectful and educational way while still maintaining an entertaining story. Allen Forrester meets several tribes on his journey through Alaska, and Josh, the museum curator, is an indigenous descendant who gives a more modern-day perspective of what it is like being indigenous in Alaska.
Perhaps this isn’t my most critical review, but I was just so surprised that a book that I have owned since 2016 was a five star read for me! I have thought about this novel a lot since I read it. It was a very engaging, descriptive, realistic, and rather uplifting read that fits the winter season well.