BOOK REVIEW: Alaskan landscape teems with life

Author Lesley Thomas recently passed a milestone. Her first novel, “Flight of the Goose: A Story of the Far North,” has now sold over 1,000 copies, a magic number that means critics are taking notice. It is a saga set in the Bering Strait region of Alaska where she grew up in an interracial Inupiaq-white family.

Thomas self-published her book in the small Seattle-based publishing house Far Eastern Press, which she and her husband own. She has worked tirelessly to promote her novel through speaking tours in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Her efforts have paid off. The Washington Press Association awarded the book first place for fiction in 2005. The Alaska Press Women also gave the book its first prize for fiction in 2006. It is now on sale at Barnes & Noble and other chain bookstores.

Fred Bigjam, an Alaskan Inupiaq author, writes that the book is “a novel about triumph over despair, maturity gained through pain, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. … Her characters seem drawn from life, believable, memorable, tragic and hopeful. … ‘Flight of the Goose’ is a remarkable achievement.” Anne Hanley, former Alaska Writer Laureate, writes that Thomas is “passionately interested in shamanism and birds,” both reflected in “Flight of the Goose.”

Thomas grew up in Nome, Alaska, and uses her intimate knowledge to paint a vivid portrait of the arctic tundra and icy seas around the fictional village Itiak. Instead of being cold and bleak, her landscape teems with life, the people full of intelligence, humor and courage.

Kayuqtuk, the “Red Fox,” aka Gretchen, is an Athabascan orphan adopted by an Inupiaq family. During epileptic seizures she sees visions, and is convinced she is a shaman. She falls in love with ornithologist Leif Trygveson, who has come north in 1971 searching for a flock of endangered Tallingeese. He is also fleeing the draft and the Vietnam War. He is of mixed Norwegian-Athabascan heritage. His father was a member of the Young Communist League so Trygveson is also a “red diaper baby.” Lesley Thomas, herself, is from a Norwegian-American, left-wing background. So once again her portrait of Leif has great verisimilitude.

This story of star-crossed lovers probes the most burning issues of our day: the rights of women, especially women of color; war versus peace; magic versus science; oil company greed versus the traditional — and sustainable — society of the Alaska native peoples.

Thomas has filled her canvas with many powerful portraits and infused her writing with a sense of foreboding. This novel reminded me of O.E. Rolvaag’s saga, “Giants in the Earth,” with its doomed Norwegian homesteader, Per Hansa. It also reminded me of the Canadian film, “Snow Walker,” based on Farley Mowat’s novel about an Inuit girl, dying of tuberculosis, who saves the life of a young white pilot when his plane crashes in the tundra. I couldn’t put Thomas’ book down.

For me, the most heartrending character is Willy, a skilled hunter who is forced to trek further and further out onto the ice, hunting for seal. He, more than any other, personifies the dying out of a hunting culture based on unparalleled survival skills in the world’s most hostile habitat. He could conquer anything nature threw at him but could not survive the “invasion from the Lower Forty-Eight.” Willy is destroyed by alcohol but also by the encroachment of oil corporations, by military recruiters seeking to send him to Vietnam, and ultimately, by global warming that literally is melting the ground he stands on.

Given George W. Bush’s quest to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the looming threat to our biosphere from corporate profiteering, Thomas’s book could not be more timely.

Flight of the Goose: A Story of the Far North

By Lesley Thomas

Far Eastern Press, 2005

Softcover, 430 pp., $19.95