May 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Flight of the Goose: A Story of the Far North by Lesley Thomas

After living in Alaska for ten years I have become more than a bit suspicious of novels set in the state. All too often they embrace a collection of worn-out myths and neglect those aspects of the region that make a story (even a fictional one) anything even remotely close to reality. Part of the reason why I was so impressed by Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves was that it was realistic. Kantner was brave enough to write a book that showed Alaska in all its wilderness glory and pain. When I received a copy of Lesley Thomas’s Flight of the Goose I was hopeful that it would approach Kantner’s level of brutal honesty. After reading it I realize I shouldn’t have been worried; Thomas knows Alaska and her book further illuminates all of the state’s complications in a breathtakingly sweet and sad manner. Flight of the Goose is a heartbreaker, but only in that special sort of way that makes you grateful for the hurt.

The plot is set in 1971 and follows Alaskan Native, Gretchen, and Leif, a white biologist who has arrived in her remote Northwestern village in search of an endangered goose (and also to do some research for a petroleum company). Leif is avoiding the Vietnam draft and struggling with family fractures, and he finds himself drawn to the harsh life of the villagers. Gretchen is an orphan who had a brutal childhood and now lives with an adopted family. She is trying to make her way in a modern world that does not recognize her calling as a shaman. The relationship between the two is only one small part of what is going on in Goose; and oddly enough, it is not even the most important part.

It would seem on the surface that Gretchen’s story could not be relatable to the average reader today, but from the very beginning Thomas makes it clear that there are certain things that we all have in common:

It seemed in modern times the old fears and hunger had just been replaced by new ones that kept me awake at night without any faith like the parents had to soothe me, and I asked myself, Is this all there is? Why was I ever born? Why do the birds fly all the way here from across the world if this is all there is?

I didn’t know if the grandparents had wondered that too. They weren’t talking. And the birds, they had never changed.

Gretchen is drawn to Leif, to his differentness, which makes him somehow more like herself than any of the people she lives with and cares about. As much as she relies on her ability to remain separate from all attachments she can not control her curiosity about who he is and why he is there. She sneaks into his tent and steals his journal to try and understand what could possess anyone to come north in search of a bird (the birds come and go -- why look for them?), but all she is left with is more questions.

But what’s interesting here is that Leif is looking for answers too; answers he can not seem to find in the world he left behind, or among the other white people living in the village. In many ways he wants something that Gretchen can not provide either -- he wants to know who is and what he should do and as she is barely able to figure that out for herself. Giving Leif insight is too much to ask of anyone.

There are many aspects of Native life that are revealed here -- life before the pipeline with all the good and bad that came with it. There is the rhythm of living with the seasons, the love/abuse relationship with sled dogs, the hypocrisy of whites looking for noble savages (and taking as much advantage of them as possible), and the suicidal melancholia of some of the Natives who can not find themselves in the present and thus drink away all frightening thoughts of the future. Through many aspects of her own life, Thomas knows this Alaska and along with all of Leif and Gretchen’s hopes and fears she gives her readers these other feelings as well. And you can’t look away from the lives she has created; you can’t lose sight of your hopes for their future.

But Thomas isn’t really giving you the future with her novel, she’s giving you the way it was thirty years ago and if things don’t play out the way you want – or hope – then you just have to let that go. What she wants is for you to feel something, to think about the people and places that have been so casually spread across postcards for a hundred years of American history. She wants you to see Alaska. Don’t blame her if it isn’t what you expect. Leif didn’t find what he was looking for either, but at least he kept looking until he found Gretchen; at least he didn’t give up when his dreams turned out to be different than he ever imagined.

Two honest books about Alaska in two years, maybe literary times are changing for the Last Frontier. Maybe, just maybe, everyone is finally ready to set all those old comfortable myths aside. Flight of the Goose is certainly another step in the right direction, and a deep rich novel that will leave readers eager for more of the truth about the 49th state.

Flight of the Goose: A Story of the Far North by Lesley Thomas
Far Eastern Press
ISBN 0967884217
426 pages