“My father liked to declare he had moved us to Alaska so we could be closer to the stars.” Taiwan was a “junk island,” a place he’d left because there he had nothing, “no family and no land.” His wife carries a different story. She has a village, a father, a home that waits for her across the Pacific Ocean. Standing on mudflats that border a Pacific inlet, she tells her ten-year-old son Gavin “if you cut a slanted path through the water, you could end up on the eastern shores of Taiwan.”
Gavin’s father brings the stars close enough that sometimes they feel like “a rope of warmth in the cold air.” He carries home books from library sales that he buys for a dollar a crate, and fantasizes about the neighborhood that will spring up around the isolated house he’s rented for his family in the wild country that borders Alaska’s largest city. As he spins dreams, his wife mounts sentry against the moose that invade her front yard, guarding her children “with a piece of steel pipe in her hand.” She salvages whatever she can to feed her children: lily bulbs, bloody pork bones, a broken fishing net.
Buffeted between a dreamer and a survivor, Gavin drifts, unanchored. He has no memories of Taiwan and no footing in a place where the ground under his feet “could turn watery...like quicksand.” Stricken with meningitis, he comes back to recovery with the knowledge that his baby sister Ruby has died from the disease he brought home from school. “It’s no one’s fault,” his sister Pei-Pei tells him but he doesn’t believe her. When his baby brother Natty asks where Ruby has gone, their mother replies “Ruby is still lost. She can’t find her way home.”
Ruby’s unexamined death clings to the family’s house like a thick fog; Gavin, Pei-Pei, and Natty find refuge outdoors, following a long path through “the endless white spruces,” discovering a house with two other children. While Pei-Pei and Gavin each find a different form of friendship with these new comrades, Natty roams through the woods alone, looking for his lost sister.
Within their own walls, the silence grows heavier with new dangers that only Pei-Pei understands. A family “vacation” ends with a return to a locked house that is no longer theirs and slowly Gavin understands that his father’s dreams can’t protect him, that his mother’s talent for scavenging is the children’s only lifeline.
“It was a kind of violence, what my father had done,” Gavin realizes when he finally travels to his mother’s village in Taiwan. “He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place where we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”
With deep sadness and language of shimmering beauty, this haunting debut novel shows how the danger of an Alaskan wilderness pales next to the savage wilderness of a displaced family and the universal wilderness of unspoken loss, undeserved luck.~Janet Brown