In 1853, four Scandinavian indentured laborers in Russian Alaska steal a canoe and begin to paddle south toward the mouth of the Columbia River, twelve thousand miles away. A tense, shrewdly modulated sea adventure in which a quartet of indentured Scandinavians attempt escape from Russian America (1853 Alaska) in a stolen canoe, a Pacific journey far more rugged "than the plain arithmetic of its miles." Of the four, only one is seaworthy at the start, but each pulls his own as they paddle through snowstorms and dangerous straits, consume their rations and personal reserves. Melander is the beached seaman who conceives the plan and navigates; Karlsson's the quiet, constant mate; Braaf is the camp thief who outfits the voyage (he remains the least developed of the lot). And Wennberg, his trigger "always this close to click," is the bitter, volcanic fourth who muscled in; kept in check by Melander, he adds a blacksmith's strength to the paddling. But Melander is killed in the sole encounter with coastal tribesmen, and Karlsson, Wennberg's chief antagonist, must take over for the fugitive alliance to hold: he alone can read the map. Doig deftly pilots this mismatched crew through a punishing journey to Astoria (Oregon), maintaining a high level of tension, including casual portions of history and geography (as handily as in Winter Brothers), testing the rocky emotional waters of desperate men. The two squabblers nearly attempt a communion, but the moment "quickened past them": the shaky truce resumes. And readers who hailed This House of Sky and Winter Brothers will find this another safe harbor, for Doig continues as a prose writer of exulting originality. (Verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, and observations resonate: the reserved Karlsson is "A man built smoke-tight.") Distant cousin to Deliverance--the writing is more lyrical, the crew less fiercely manipulated: a polished chronicle of physical and spiritual endurance.
The coast they travelled is a maze of channels with literally hundreds of islands and passages. The battle against the sea is vividly described—storms, fog, the totally uninhabited coast except for a few hostile natives and the sheer distance they had to paddle produced not only physical but mental challenges. The beautiful but deadly setting is wonderfully described. I found the characters believable and well realized. The plot had several unexpected twists that kept me turning the pages.
I have been a fan of Ivan Doig’s storytelling for many years now. This is an early work of Doig’s, obvious in that his writing style is far less polished than in his later books. There is an odd mix of very convoluted, incredibly long sentences, followed by staccato partial sentences. I found this combination hard to read and it made it difficult for me to get into the storyline. Nevertheless, after feeling that I was slogging through the first few chapters, Doig’s storytelling once again caught me and I was hooked.
Recommended with some reservations about the writing style.
These men were united in their desire to reach freedom but were of vastly differing personalities. Readers get to understand them through Doig’s imagined dialog. His account of the perils they faced is gripping. It is remarkable that any survived.
A vast amount of research went into this novel, and readers who appreciate “adventure tales” will be well served.
It's the mid-1800s and four Swedish men decide to leave “Russian America” (now Alaska) for Astoria, Oregon. They canoe alongside the coast to get there.
I couldn't get interested in the book for the first 1/3 of the book or so. There were a lot of names – people and places – and I just couldn't focus. It did get a little more interesting after they were finally on their way, but overall, it was still pretty slow for me. Looking at other reviews, it appears I am in a minority on this. I did find it interesting that this was based on a true story.