Novel probes woes of fishers' wives

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

Commercial fishing is a tough and dangerous job. But it's no picnic for the families left in port, either.

Margaret Doyle portrays the trials and tribulations of the wives who stay behind in "The Fisherman's Quilt," a novel set in Kodiak.

It tells the first-person story of Nora Hunter, who comes to the island in the late 1970s as an idealistic young woman, her first baby in her arms, to wait for her husband, Matt, to come ashore.

"Now we were Pioneers to the Last Frontier, where I would carve my niche out of the wilderness with my baby, my dog, my music, my rocker and my husband," Nora says when she first moves from Seattle to Alaska.

But as weeks stretch into months and then years, Nora finds herself still waiting. She discovers she is competing with the sea for her husband's attention, her children are growing up fatherless and her expectations of what family life should be are slipping away.

Fishing openings take Matt away for weeks at a time. The brief intervals between seasons are packed with work gearing up or doing repairs. And if he is not working, he wanders away to socialize with his boat buddies. Talking "business," Nora notes, often turns into drinking all night.

Nora comes to Alaska as a self-described "hippie mama," leaving behind her kin, communal living, dancing and club-hopping.

In Kodiak, she finds herself alone in a strange town with a dependent baby. As a perceptive counselor tells her, she has gone from a carefree life surrounded by people to a lonely one burdened with responsibility.

Nora reacts with depression and frustration, her life punctuated with crying jags and what she herself calls hissy fits. At times, feelings of despair overwhelm her.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not really here if no one is interacting with me," she writes in her diary. "... It's like I could be dead for days and who would know?"

Eventually, she learns to let go of her dream of what her marriage should have been and to build a life based on her circle of girlfriends and her inner resources. It is not a magical cure-all.

"What's strength, what's bitterness?" she asks.

Doyle crafts a detailed and complex look at a restless woman's maturation and the evolution of her marriage. Told through Nora's eyes and entries in her diary, it is an introspective and emotional odyssey.

Although Nora puts her marriage and children at the top of her priorities, readers will not find "The Fisherman's Quilt" either a conventional romance or a homily on so-called "traditional family values."

Although the author is never explicit or sensationalistic, she talks about marital sexuality and cynical religion, and her frequent allusions to casual drug use may shock some.

Doyle, who now lives in Washington's San Juan Islands, lived in Alaska in the past. The book implies she got an earful from unhappy women while she was here.

The author is at her best when she shows Nora's inner thoughts and the complexities of her relationship with Matt. Their characters are compelling, and the dialog and interactions between them have a searing authenticity.

The book is weakest in its plotting. Nora's rounds of domestic challenges, baby showers and heartfelt kitchen-table talks have a sameness to them, and the vast cast of secondary characters remains hazy.

The author seems to pull her punches, distancing readers from the potentially most dramatic events.

For example, when Matt's boat burns at sea, no one gets badly hurt and the sketchy details are relegated to a conversation in the family car.

The author also drops some threads of her story, such as never telling us the fate of Nora's past associates indicted for drug dealing.

Doyle skimps on action scenes and, in avoiding pat answers, leaves many issues unresolved. More poetic license and less realism would have picked up the pace.

Ultimately, not a lot happens outside of Nora's troubled mind.

This is very much a woman's book in both voice and viewpoint. As such, it is an interesting contrast to the masculine fishing life portrayed in William McCloskey's well-known "Highliners" books, which overlap "The Fisherman's Quilt" in time and place.

Despite its shortcomings, Doyle's book speaks with insight and power about the lives of neglected women.

Although such stresses are notoriously acute for wives of Alaska's commercial fishermen, the problems she depicts are universal and will resonate with readers who have never landed a salmon or crab.

"The Fisherman's Quilt" is well-written, intelligent and touching. But if the author had injected a bit more of the masculine traits of extroversion and action, Nora's tale would have been more compelling.

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

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