Mary Catharine Martin | The Perils of Writing Wilderness: On Dave Eggers’s ‘Heroes of the Frontier’

In the last
few months, Alaska has been brutal to people I know. A friend who’s so
knowledgeable about the wilderness he teaches college classes on the subject
got mauled by a bear on a mountain outside Haines. The outdoors-savvy boyfriend
of a friend disappeared while running or hiking outside Nome. A bush pilot I
flew with last year crashed into Admiralty Island; he and all but one of the
passengers died.

But if
Alaska can be brutal, it can also be transcendent. Another friend recently
caught a beautiful king salmon with a fly she tied herself; the photo of her
holding it conveys a form of worship. Earlier this summer, I traveled to
Admiralty Island — Kootznoowoo, or “fortress of the bears” in Lingít, the
indigenous language of the area. For hours, we watched male and female brown
bears court — running away, snarling, following each other as if they were
connected by an ever-shortening rope. For the last few years, my boyfriend and
I have packed inflatable boats, food, and our tent and floated down a different
river in Alaska or the Yukon — the Pelly, the Big Salmon, the Nisutlin,
the Stikine. We’ve listened to a dozen wolves howl and bark on each side of the
river around us long into the night. We’ve watched a pack of them ghost in and
out of the trees, barely visible as they run. We’ve seen kingfishers beat in
place above the water, ravens chase ospreys, a cow moose sheltering her two
calves as she watched us float by, black and brown bears eating sedges.
Many fiction
writers get wilderness wrong.

I recently
received a copy of Dave Eggers’s newest book,
Heroes of the
, which is set in Alaska. I like Eggers’s books. I first read A Heartbreaking
Work of Staggering Genius
 in high
school, when my love for it verged on the babbling. I appreciate the generous,
expansive nature of his writing, and because he’s Dave Eggers, I really enjoyed
everything about the new book that relates to people. Josie, the protagonist,
is complicated, believable, moving, frequently hilarious — so is the way she
interacts with others. The towns, and their quirky, touristy craziness, ring

This is not
the case for the wilderness. At one point in the book, Josie watches a water
snake emerge from a river and eat a snail. The only problem? There are no
snakes in Alaska. In a later section, Josie and her two children pause to watch
“a ten point buck.” Only problem? There are no “ten point bucks” in interior
Alaska. Every now and then mule deer stray over from Canada, but when they do
they’re so unusual people write newspaper articles about them. A “ten-point
buck?” No.
In the first
ten pages, Josie and the kids drive through an animal park that advertises its
Alaskan mammals. They see “a pair of moose, and their new calf, none of them
stirring.” I realize this is a zoo, but male moose do not hang around with
their calves. They saw “an antelope, spindly and stupid; it walked a few feet
before stopping to look forlornly into the grey mountains beyond. Its eyes
said, Take me, Lord. I am now broken.” Again, a zoo, but
there are no antelope in Alaska. If it wanted to flee into the Alaskan
mountains it would find itself just as lonely and would die of cold, wolves, or
starvation come winter. When they’re finished with the zoo, a ranger points “to
a mountain range nearby, where, he said, there was a rare thing: a small group
of bighorn sheep, cutting a horizontal line across the ridge, east to west.”
Bighorn sheep do not live in Alaska. Alaska has Dall sheep, which are a
different species.
To most
Alaskans, these are big mistakes. But when reading Heroes
of the Frontier
, I was also thinking about something more
intangible — the nature of a place versus the nature of a story set in that

Much of the
novel is set on the road, but at the end Josie and her two children, Paul and
Ana, decide to go for a hike. It ends up taking much longer than they
anticipated, and they’re unprepared. There is lightning. It begins to rain;
they get soaked. They decide not to go back the way they’ve come, but to run
from copse of trees to copse of trees, somehow staying on the trail. If there’s
one thing indicated by the very large number of people that get lost and die or
have to be rescued in the Alaskan wilderness every year, it’s that it is very
easy to accidentally veer off-trail, especially if the trail is not well
traveled or near a city, especially if it’s not the best of circumstances. But
somehow, despite the fact that they’re literally running for their lives during
a massive storm, Josie and the kids keep finding clues as to where they’re
something described as “an avalanche,” though its only elements seem to be rock
and shale — Josie slides across it on her back with her upper body clad in
only a bra, but Eggers never mentions snow, ice or cold. Somehow,
Josie and her children make it to a cabin she didn’t realize was
there when they began the hike. It is decked out with balloons and a feast for
the “Stromberg Family Reunion.” I can get with a cabin; a cabin can be the deus
ex machina
real-life salvation. But a cabin decorated and then abandoned, miles and an
arduous hike into the wilderness, containing a table “overflowing with juices
and sodas, chips, fruit and a glorious chocolate cake under a plastic canopy?”
I wanted to believe in this cabin — I hope there is a cabin like that out
there for all of us — but I could think of too many people for whom this cabin
didn’t exist.
I am by no
means immune to the perils of writing wilderness myself. I recently showed a
new chapter in my novel-in-revision to my boyfriend Bjorn, a life-long Alaskan.
In it, a young girl wanders around lost on Chichagof Island. It was the chapter
he liked least.
“She would
be afraid,” he said. “When does she start feeling like prey?”
My problem
was that I wanted my character to be challenged, but like Eggers, I hadn’t
accounted for the reality of the place that would challenge her.
A few years
ago, Bjorn and I hiked the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, the route many would-be
miners took to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was before the
official start of the season, and except for a very fit German guy in his
mid-twenties, we were the only hikers. We spent the first night at Sheep Camp,
the last stop before the pass; the German guy woke before us, and we followed
his tracks the rest of the day. We summited the pass in a late-May snowstorm on
steps Bjorn cut with his ice ax and emerged from the clouds into what a
Canadian ranger we’d passed called “a bluebird day.” It was surreal. We were
still using our snowshoes, but bumblebees buzzed around us and landed on the
snow. We started steaming. We followed the route the snowshoe-wearing rangers
had flagged… right over a half-frozen pond. The German guy hadn’t brought
snowshoes, and we could see the hole where he’d fallen through up to his waist,
the drag marks where he’d pulled himself out. As we walked, we saw his
footsteps — he’d been post-holing, sinking through the deep snow up to his
crotch with each step. Post-holing makes for incredibly miserable walking. A
few miles later, we saw a tiny figure waving to us frantically. The German guy
hadn’t brought sunglasses, and his eyes were hurting; he was going snow-blind.
Bjorn gave him an extra pair. The rangers had told him they’d marked the trail
to Happy Camp, and he was wondering if he’d taken a wrong turn. We got out our
GPS and figured out we were on the snow-covered trail, but the rangers had
stopped flagging two or three miles short.
That is what
happens in wilderness when you are unprepared — even with a flagged route on a
trail thousands have walked before, even if you are experienced. You don’t
magically find a party-food-filled abandoned cabin decorated for a family
reunion, complete with a sheet cake under a protective dome. You end up
miserable and wet and exhausted and snow-blind and far from where you’ve tried
to be, and if you’re lucky, it’s a sunny day and there are other people around
who can help you. It’s a transformative experience to realize how vulnerable,
and how lucky, you are.
The idea of
owing more to luck than courage, however, contradicts one of the basic themes
of Heroes of the Frontier — that through acting bravely and
persevering, you and those around you (in Josie’s case, Paul and Ana) can
become the “heroes” of the title. That conflict is one of the difficulties of
writing wilderness in fiction. Wilderness is what it is, not what a book
requires it to be. The Alaskan wilderness challenges people in ways they don’t
anticipate, and it is not kind to the inexperienced and underprepared, no
matter how “brave” they might be.
Last year, I
went to a panel in which Juneau writer Ernestine Hayes, author of
Blonde Indian, said “A
sense of place arises from the place itself… it is (not) a panorama to be
conquered.” [Note: this was a 49 Writers Crosscurrents event,
also written about by Mary
Catharine Martin for Capital City Weekly.]
I thought of this as I read these lines, after Josie and company arrive at
the cabin: “Every part of their being was awake. Their minds were screaming in
triumph, their arms and legs wanted more challenge, more conquest, more glory.”
At the end of Heroes of the Frontier, Alaska
is a panorama conquered.
the novel is about a woman escaping the fears, restrictions and regrets of her
life and trying to shape her children into good, brave people, like those she
imagines live in Alaska. It’s an admirable goal. But both in towns and out of
them, Josie, Paul and Ana seem charmed. In the wild, that means Eggers’s Alaska
loses something essential to itself.
So here are
some questions. Where is the line between artistic license and error? If we
take liberties with the character of a place and we are aware of it, should we
acknowledge that we’ve done so? This isn’t nonfiction, after all, and in spite
of its bighorn sheep, Heroes of the Frontier is an enjoyable story.

Writers who
write wilderness have a responsibility to it, partly because so many of us are
disconnected from it, and partly because it’s been misrepresented so often.
We’ve now constructed so much of the world — even in our national parks
— that most of us never experience real wilderness, a place you can’t see
from the road. It exists with or without us. It means only and incredibly
itself, and when we are there, we become a part of it — something that can be
terrifying, or exhilarating, or both.
There is
lots of insightful, beautiful writing about Alaskan and northern wilderness,
both fiction and nonfiction — see Seth
, Sherry Simpson, Velma
, a vast array of others. There are people who write
wilderness gorgeously outside the context of Alaska as well — Louise Erdich, Cormac McCarthy.
If there’s anything wilderness can teach you, it’s the dizzying breadth of what
you do not know, and if what you write is to resonate as true there is no
lesson more important. So if you’re going to write wilderness, experience it.
Respect it. Be prepared and scared and awestruck and relieved. Research. Fact
check. Then represent the place you are writing as honestly as you can. You owe
it to a world that has lost a sense of true wild.

 lives in Juneau, Alaska with her partner, the writer Bjorn Dihle. She is currently revising her novel, which interweaves the stories of three generations of runaways and spans rural Louisiana, Las Vegas, and Southeast Alaska.

This essay originally appeared over at The Millions and appears here with the author’s permission. 
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