British novelist takes a look at Alaska psyche

Posted: Thursday, August 07, 2003

Outsiders often wonder why anyone would willingly live in a place like Alaska, with its overwhelming winters and underwhelming civilized perks.

"Cold Country," by British expatriate Gerri Brightwell, gives its narrator, Sandra, that skepticism at the onset. But in the course of the story things change for Sandra in ways she never anticipated.

"Cold Country" is part mystery, part road trip and part buddy story. It tells how Sandra gets ensnared, against her druthers, into driving her sort-of relative and sort-of friend Fleur from Seattle to Fairbanks.

"Vacuums are dangerous: they suck everything towards them. You let the pressure in your life drop and the next thing you know it's filling up with dumb ideas, other people's plans, the sort of debris that comes loose because it's not nailed down," Sandra says as she begins her odyssey.

"That was my mistake: not making a plan for myself."

Instead other people make plans for Sandra: her pushy step-father, Ted; her intrusive Mum; her clinging ex-boyfriend, Matt, and Fleur, who is Ted's cousin once removed. After getting bored with her commercial art freelancing and moving back in with her parents to ditch Matt, Sandra makes nebulous plans to move to Arizona to get away from them and the rain. Instead, her parents blackmail her into driving Fleur, who broke her arm, up the Alaska Highway.

Sandra is unhappy with the arrangement. But she's unhappy about a lot of things. Raised in England, she moved to Seattle in her teens when her mother married Ted but retained her accent and an outsider's view of Americana.

Despite Ted's efforts to foster friendship between them, she views Fleur with the special contempt the self-styled urbanely hip hold for country yokels.

"She really believed in all that stuff: saying please and thank you, treating people the old-fashioned way as though at some time in the past things had been purer than they were now," Sandra grouses.

Fleur has her own criticisms of Sandra, as when Sandra tries to hand her money they had squabbled about:

"She slapped it away. 'You're always too busy trying to be clever to understand. ... You hate to be obliged to do anything, even when it's done to please you.'"

The story is more than an odd-couple saga. Fleur previously dependable, hokey, bland and self-sufficient is not herself. She, and later her family in Alaska, have secrets they don't want to share or confront.

Despite their incompatibility, Sandra finds herself on the road facing 2,000 miles of Fleur's country music and an unreliable beater pick-up truck. The trip, of course, does not go as expected.

Brightwell draws her characters with convincing detail and nuance, and the friction as circumstances force the two young women together generates real literary sparks. Once the reader passes the first couple slow chapters and gets used to her staccato prose and British idiom, the book is absorbing.

Brightwell studied creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, living in the state for several years in the 1990s. She knows the territory intimately, and her descriptions ring true.

The plotting is less satisfying. Although the incidents and arc of the story are believable and compelling, "Cold Country" fails to deliver on the tension it generates. The author hints at dark secrets, but delivers shades of gray. Minor characters vanish, and bits of plot still dangle at the end.

Another disappointment is characters that do not inspire affection or generate much sympathy. Sandra is immature and selfish, her negativity casting a sour light on much of the first-person narrative.

Alaska's glorious scenery gets scant comment compared to the more problematic charms of manmade additions, as in her first impression of Fairbanks:

"A bleak place. Buildings that would have looked draughty in Seattle ran along both sides of the road, cheap blocks of flats behind them, a couple of big supermarkets. We turned off the main road into side streets lined with low wooden houses, taking a right, a left, another right then pulling up outside a house as narrow as a single room. Her parents' place. Hardly a real house at all."

Even Fleur, who has elements of a martyred heroine, ultimately comes across as more of a neurotic fall-guy. Her immediate family proves a gallery of picturesque but creepy supporting characters, revealing to Sandra a dysfunctional mix of affection and exploitation.

The most likable character in the book is Harlequin Bob, Sandra's accidental canine sidekick. He offers touches of humor and warmth in contrast to the chilly comforts of her human social interactions, although his significance to the plot is only tangential.

Surprisingly, the story has a happy ending, and Sandra reinvents herself as an Alaskan. Unfortunately, Brightwell dwells on the dark buildup and doesn't give us time to watch the characters blossom after their epiphanies.

"Cold Country" is her first novel, and it shows considerable promise despite its shortcomings. The author gives us memorable characters and tackles the complexities of family and friendship with subtlety and insight. Like Alaska in the winter, "Cold Country" might be uncomfortable but it's worth the trouble.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who lives near Fair-banks.

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