Monday, October 7, 2013

Hell On the Tundra Moss

Don Rearden, The Raven's Gift

John Morgan and his wife, Anne thought teaching in Alaska’s rural tundra would be an adventure. But when a mutant flu decimates their Yup’ik village, John loses everything he loves. When he can’t bring himself to die, he chooses his only remaining option: walk out, across hundreds of trackless miles, in search of civilization. But he finds something far worse than disease: primal man, bloody and savage, hunting his trail.

Advance press compares Don Rearden’s debut novel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I’d go further: hints of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket permeate the narrative. It also provides a companion to Camus’ The Plague, a sort of answer volume, but not a direct refutation. Readers can enjoy this as a character thriller, or a dialogue with recent Western philosophy.

Trekking over Alaska’s vast tundra, John must confront creeping nihilism emerging within himself. Like Homer or Jack London before him, Rearden realizes an important truth: humans cannot beat nature. Oceans or deserts or Arctic flatland abolish all human pretense. Yet we share an innate need to build something. When John encounters a blind, starving girl amid burned-out ruins, he knows a logical man would leave her, but he abandons logic.

Rearden’s non-linear narrative pits John, the Modern Man, against a range of iconic characters: the Wise Native Woman and the Children With No Past, the Men Gone Savage and the Bastion of Civilization. When everything that came before proves founded on lies, different people face this collapse in wildly different ways. Facing such diverse allies and foes, though, John and “the girl” have only one overriding motivation: to survive.

In some ways, such stories have a fatalistic inevitability. From medieval quest romances and Grimm’s fairy tales to modern apocalyptic thrillers, we expect certain necessary components. We know the hero will lose everything, undergoing trials and humiliations; he’ll uncover secrets, both his own and his people’s; and he’ll energe transformed, putatively improved. Readers could sit with a copy of Joseph Campbell and plot Rearden’s story arc with graph paper.

But simultaneously, Rearden customizes his narrative to suit his location. Alaskans love to call their home ‘the last frontier,” and like Owen Wister or Louis L’amour, Rearden knows that people discover their true core selves beyond civilization’s borders. Frontiers overthrow self-importance and learned behaviors. Only when forced to support ourselves, moment by moment, do we discover the identity lingering beneath our pretensions.

Alaska, in Rearden’s telling, completely demolishes everything people from the Lower 48 think they know. Not only does it lack roads and conurbations, city trappings which bring the illusion of control; Alaska also lacks trees, grasses, and other familiar natural landmarks. Sure, miners and tourists and other white folks think they can “modernize” Alaska. But Rearden says the flat tundra moss and thrusting mountains expose such fashionable rhetorical lies.

Staggering across time, Rearden unfolds John’s story in three parallel tracks. As an outsider teacher, John struggles with local mistrust, but finds surprising allies by rejecting traditional white narratives in his Yup’ik classroom. Fleeing his ruined village, he struggles to survive with a blind, questioning orphan in tow. And with possible civilization in sight, he must hold his new family together while fleeing a faceless enemy who hunts humans for sport.

John’s quest exposes his inmost fears, testing whether his worries matter in the larger landscape. As a mixed-race outsider, he stands with his feet in both white and Yup’ik culture—making him part of neither. Lacking either Yup’ik tradition or white scientific certainty, he manages to avoid the pitfalls plaguing many other survivors. But he doesn’t understand most people he encounters. Like Jonah, John sees, but he doesn’t know.

Rearden’s ending comes rather abruptly. Like Golding, he cannot quite let his characters embrace the Absurd, providing rescue when things seem bleakest. One almost wishes Rearden, like Camus, had let his characters surrender all hope. Ten more pages might have been revealing. What new humans might have emerged on the other side? Surely something different, darker, more visceral than Camus’ subtopical plague survivors.

But like Golding, Rearden’s minor epic will resonate with audiences not for its ending, but for its locomotive-like mass. He pushes his characters, and us with them, through the pits of human despair and casual savagery. And if he doesn’t necessarily take the final step himself, he invites readers to do so. Though he admits: you may not like what you see over there.

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