By Sara Loewen
University of Alaska Press, 2013
Reviewed by Simmons B. Buntin
Every now and then a magazine is lucky enough to include a contribution that irrevocably changes the publication—and for the better. New writer Sara Loewen’s essay “To Know a Place,” which published as “Setnet Fishing on Uyak Bay” in Terrain.org in 2010 and appears in her first book, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands, is just such a piece. When nonfiction editor Joshua Foster forwarded the essay to me, his endorsement was straightforward: “Dude, this is fantastic.” But there was more at work here then a delicious essay about fishing and the harsh but providing landscape of Uyak Bay, Alaska, particularly for our journal. This essay launched a new section altogether, To Know a Place, which features an essay, story, or set of poems from one contribution that portrays an intimate relationship to a single place.
The essay became our new section’s inaugural contribution. Loewen also provided several of her excellent photographs and an audio reading. I’ve thought of the essay and those photos often since we published it, for her storytelling and imagery (and images) are so delightful that they deserve a wider audience and further consideration.
Luckily, we have that opportunity and much more with the publication of her book, a collection of 20 short essays ranging from lyrical to historical, all about the two islands, Kodiak and Amook, she migrates between with her fisherman husband and two young boys over the course of a year. “To Know a Place” is set on Amook Island, among the family’s isolated fishing-season cabin and storm-tossed landscape. Other essays take place there and on Kodiak, where the family overwinters, though the essays also range to the Pacific Rim, notably Thailand, Hawaii, Japan, and historic Russia.
Gaining Daylight begins with a preface that sets the book’s overall tone. “I was born and raised in remote Alaska,” she writes, “yet I am still adjusting to the isolation of a life surrounded by water, to days of slow rain that muffle sound and steal color.” There are plenty of loving and lovely moments here, but deep at its center is Loewen’s struggle to raise boys in a panoramic but treacherous landscape, particularly when her husband is out on the bay (or farther) fishing for salmon, not that she doesn’t play more than an onlooker’s role there. Her life and this place are all hands on board. In short, Loewen’s is a dangerous, intimate, remote, and altogether compelling life.
Early in the book, it becomes clear that the author’s challenge in portraying this life is two-fold: firstly, going deep enough to give the reader a real sense of the region’s landscape and culture, as well as her personal risks, rewards, and residuals; and secondly, writing broadly enough to take the essays beyond that of merely regional interest and into the realm of universal experience. The form of the essays matters here, too, because the chapters of Gaining Daylight are diverse in their approach, though not in their length: none is longer than ten pages.
The opening essay, “Giant Wings,” plus “To Know a Place” and “Unsinkable”—two of my favorites—are narrative personal essays. The book also includes a few historical accounts: “Hunger and Thirst,” about Kodiak’s Russian American settling, for example, or “A Lake by Any Other Name,” about the glamorous, World War II-era namesake for Kodiak’s Lake Rose Teed. These are interesting but not quite told in the same voice. Somewhere between, though I think hoping toward the lyrical, is the lovely, fascinating “Winter in June,” which braids the June 6, 1912 eruption of Novarupta—which cloaked the region in darkness for days—with Loewen’s own struggle with the darkness of winter. “In winter,” she writes, “I grieve for lost light.” It’s a delicate, articulate interweaving of the two.
Into the more lyrical she ventures with “Fifteen Times over the Bridge” and “Capacious,” the latter particularly delightful, almost a prose poem. But at this point in the book—and I don’t mean that literally, for I’m skipping around here—the style ranges so much that Gaining Daylight begins to lose its center. Of particular note here are the essays “December,” “Woman Overboard,” and “Elementary Love.” Part of the University of Alaska Press’s Alaska Literary Series, this is a small collection—just 150 pages in all including a dozen pages of notes and credits—so I understand the desire to put in as much well-written work as is available and, at least on the surface, is relevant. But in my reading, the collection would be stronger without these essays, which, except “Elementary Love,” feel like graduate school creative writing exercises (and Loewen acknowledges most of these essays came out of her grad school experience; there’s certainly nothing wrong with that… unless they haven’t moved beyond that workshop mode). “Elementary Love,” on the other hand, comes with an unexpected kind of spite, even a pettiness that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Nor should it. The essay is a letter to a grade school teacher for whom Loewen substitutes, and I cannot see its purpose here among what otherwise is a beautiful exploration of self and place.
Despite the above criticism, however, Gaining Daylight is a finely crafted collection rich with lyrical language and insight. Take, for example, these metaphors and images: “where crows are rising off the bluff like bits of ash from a campfire” ~ “we walked for miles along the water, where the only remaining things were empty blue-tiled swimming pools, like fallen squares of sky” ~ “the fog tonight feels like kindness” ~ “shadows are a kind of novelty here” ~ “the cannery comes into view like an old retouched photograph.” Gaining Daylight is full of this beautiful imagery, the surprising comparisons that only come with a deep knowledge of place and accomplished grasp of language.
Knowledge and language alone, of course, are not enough for a book to sing. Fortunately, there’s much more at work here, and while I’d hope that several of the essays would be deeper and therefore longer—there’s more to be explored in “Sea Chains Broken” and “Red Caviar,” for instance; and I feel that we don’t yet truly know her family (though I understand a mother’s need to guard there)—my sense is that this is just an introduction, almost a teasing really, of what we can expect from this young Alaskan writer moving forward. It’s a wonder, on one hand, that she found the time to craft such remarkable little pieces—let alone collect them in a book—but like the best writing it leaves the reader yearning for more. It seems there is a promise in here of that—family life, landscape, and climate all willing.
Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands is full of those promises, and rich with promise. It is a wonderful debut that deftly spans Loewen’s own inner and Alaskan geographies with a rare intimacy, elegance, and steadfastness. Like the tides on Uyak Bay, the essays move with a certain rightness and loveliness, a definite rhythm—and so we are moved by them.
Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments and the author of Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). He is also the author of two books of poetry, both published by Salmon Poetry: Bloom (2010) and Riverfall (2005). Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
Header photograph by Sara Loewen.