Book Review: ‘Wild Rivers, Wild Rose’

Mat-Su College writing instructor tells of history and offers a glimpse into life in Territorial Alaska in an award-winning historical fiction novel.

"Wild Rivers, Wild Rose" author Sarah Birdsall. Photo by William Barstow.

Birdsall, Sarah, University of Alaska Press, 2020
275 pages, 160223406X $20.95, 160223406X

A recipient of the Willa Award for historical fiction, the latest book by double UAA graduate and Mat-Su College writing instructor takes readers to the Talkeetna Mountains. The book’s braided narrative weaves together the voices of Anna Harker, who lay dying on the tundra near her husband’s gold mine in 1941, her lover Wade Daniels, who joins the search to find her, and Billie Sutherland, a fellow Alaskan who comes to Susitna Station.

The narrative also combines three different time periods and covers significant historical events with Anna speaking of her life in the first person, recalling people and places just as Europe is bracing for World War II, Wade Daniels’ life is described by an omniscient narrator, dancing between his life and interactions with fellow villagers in Susitna Station. Eventually his travel leads him to Europe where he becomes a soldier. Billie’s story is told in the third person. She is in her late 20s in 1963, arrives to escape her own demons and confronts the strangely quiet and guarded village.

The novel takes us into a village in the Alaskan wilderness, all the way to 1996. We are “there” when the villagers learn of the crime, and “there” when they learn that the US has entered World War II.

Following Wade Daniels takes us out into the battlefields of World War II as he fights and reflects on Anna. Billie’s narrative shows trauma caused by her ghosts in Seattle, and to the newsrooms of Anchorage during the earthquake. Through snippets of music, poetry, and letters, Birdsall imbues her work with life – even in what feels like a harsh, faraway place, people are playing music and dancing and drawing strength from the arts.

Birdsall’s superpower as a storyteller is in presenting believable characters and tight writing. Readers learn of how Anna and her mother Maddie got to Susitna Station as the Spanish flu pandemic was happening. Racism was rampant as it happened to Anna’s stepfather, a German who left Germany, and the discrimination he faced even in the far away village, and to the Alaskan Native children, especially George and Nellie, who were Anna’s friends growing up. Birdsall presents complex situations of people like Montana, a man who once owned the mine, and was near it when the murders occurred.

Wade’s intimacy and love for Anna makes the search complicated as he hedges questions about his concern, and why he has a more personal connection with places where Anna might be found.

Central to the book without his own narrative is village commissioner Ben Fairfield who, as his name suggests, is fair and admits that he is in over his head with the murders. With the world on the brink of a war in 1941, there wasn’t enough manpower to investigate all the crimes in the Territory of Alaska.

Pilot Atlee Virtanen, the Flying Finn, is a messenger between two worlds: the one in which Anna lived and the one into which Billie steps years later. He is a Hermes figure, flying investigators to the crime scene, flying the murder victims out, announcing the US entry into the second world war, directing Billie into the story, piquing her interest and commenting about inconsistencies and explaining them enough to her to cause her to inquire deeper.

With characters that feel real, life is not so easy that it can end happily ever after for everyone, but loose ends are tied up.

I enjoyed this book. As a former student of Sarah Birdsall, I couldn’t help but notice how well she practices what she preaches. Each of her narratives as entries in her novel can stand alone as independent pieces. In class she spoke of the literary device called Chekhov’s gun, where “if there is a gun on the table in the first scene, it had better go off by the third.” If I were a writing teacher, I would assign “Wild Rivers, Wild Rose” excerpts to be read as examples for style. If I were flying out of state, I would buy it to read on a layover. If I was a tourist who wanted to learn about life in the 49th State during territorial days, I would be happy having read this.

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