Novelist uses Alaska stage for chilly love story

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

Alaska is more than a geographic place. For many, it represents an internal landscape as well: a frontier, an adventure, an opportunity or a mystery.

"The Seal Wife," Kathryn Harrison's 2002 novel of erotic obsession, is set in Anchorage during World War I, when prospectors and railroad men set the tiny port of Ship Creek on its way to becoming Alaska's largest city. But the setting is secondary to the chilly internal wilderness of her leading characters.

The government sends Bigelow, a meteorologist, to set up and man the first weather station at the outskirts of the raw settlement. It is a solitary job, and soon Bigelow's loneliness and appetites lead him to a young Native woman known only as "the Aleut." Mysterious and mute, she becomes his lover and, when she disappears, his obsession.

The story focuses on Bigelow as he battles loneliness, lust and the elements, his mind filled with thoughts of women and weather.

Harrison is an accomplished writer, and her spare, lyrical prose is an effective and economical vehicle for portraying characters, action and setting. She is skilled at maintaining tension and momentum, even when action slacks.

At times she doles out words sparingly, as in this description of Bigelow's employer:

"Bulletins. Warnings. Adv-isories. The Weather Bureau was once a division of the Army Signal Corps and speaks the language of alarm."

At other times, she treats the reader to lush verbal scenes, as in another meteorological reference:

"The Alaskan sun remains unknowable, every day a new prank, pulling along its bows and parhelia and other odd, errant optical paraphernalia, too lazy and distracted to achieve altitude, rolling along the tops of the mountains, infusing the icy fog with a strange and sullen greeny gold. Halos and sun dogs, auroral curtains of purple and pink, livid green coronas trailing ribbons of white, airborne ice devils that whirl from red to blue, secondary and even tertiary rainbows, prismatic explosions and ricocheting arcs of light, the basin of the inlet on fire, the sky dark, twinkling. From his station window Bigelow has seen all manner of phenomena he would never before have called weather."

Harrison has researched the history of meteorology, and presents compelling details about her main character's work. In particular, she describes a massive project he undertakes to construct a giant kite to carry detection equipment thousands of feet aloft.

But most of the story is far earthier. As a healthy, uninhibited young man deprived of the company of women, Bigelow obsesses about sex.

"And Bigelow is spending too much time in his bed, unsatisfied lust consuming his attention as it hasn't since he was sixteen," Harrison writes.

Harrison has five other books to her credit and specializes in historical pieces that delve into eerie erotica. In "The Seal Wife" she does not shirk to take the reader into Bigelow's fantasies and into bedrooms he visits on his hungry quest.

The book keeps a tight focus on Bigelow and his fixations on women and weather, both of which prove dangerous in unexpected ways. The book's characters are more intriguing than likeable.

Inside Bigelow's head, following his actions and listening to what he tells others, we get a satisfying understanding of a character tangled up in his abilities and weaknesses. The author draws several of the small cast of supporting characters with brief but telling scenes as well.

But the crucial character of the Aleut woman remains a cipher to the reader as well as to Bigelow. As the protagonists of a love story, their relationship remains out of balance.

The first part of the book is a bleak read. We follow Bigelow through mud, snow, dark and oblique light in his missions to fathom the atmosphere and to slake his desires. The settlement of rough-cut buildings and free-flowing whiskey offers him scant comfort.

But the story accelerates and action builds. Ultimately, hope overcomes despair, and the book reaches a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

Northern readers may find Harrison's errors irritating. Her references to Natives suggest no familiarity beyond a few names garnered from a reference book. All we learn of the Aleut woman is that she can sew, cook, skin animals and that she wears a tattoo on her chin.

Although the title hints at the northern legends of Sedna or selkies, the author uses neither myth and only gives a single seal a brief cameo.

A resident of New York, Harrison projects Alaska stereotypes of frigid winters, enormous icebergs and the midnight sun onto Anchorage. It is disappointing that a writer and publisher of such professional caliber did not have someone familiar with the region vet the manuscript to remove such bloopers as placing a raccoon among the area fauna.

But Harrison is writing about people and their relationships, not about Alaska's natural history, and she does not pretend to be an expert on the area.

Contacted via e-mail, she explained how she learned about the region. Her grandfather, who raised her, had worked in Anchorage as a young man.

"He had an album of photographs that fascinated me as a child, and he told stories that remained with me long after his death," she said.

"I've never been to Alaska -- I consciously made the decision not to go, not to compromise my imagined landscape by contact with the real, modern place. So obviously I consider my evocation to be, in a word, fictional."

Despite the shortcomings, her grandfather's memories and her knowledge of the human heart gave Harrison insights into Alaska's people that ring true in this novel.

For example, she describes a revelation her protagonist has soon after his arrival:

"Bigelow has discovered something. In Alaska he is his own boss. For the first time in his life, he can order his days as he sees fit."

In the landscape of the human heart, Harrison gets the Alaska essence right.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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