Juggling act 

Every detail has its place in Jimmy Bluefeather

It would be simple to describe Jimmy Bluefeather, the new novel from Alaska's Kim Heacox, as the story of a grandfather trying to rescue his grandson from the brink of a wasted life. Weave in some threads of forgiveness, redemption and landscape porn and you already have quite a story. In Heacox's hands, the result is a hilarious, beautifully heartfelt novel that goes beyond a solid plot line.

The book centers on the tiny southeast Alaska village of Jinkaat. Old Keb Wisting, part Tlinglit Native and part Norwegian, is nearly 100 years old and the last living traditional canoe carver in the village. Old Keb's grandson, James, a promising basketball player who dreams of a career in the NBA, is injured in a logging accident, that may not have been an accident, and will never play again. The young man falls into a mean-spirited depression and claims he has nothing left to live for. Old Keb, who feels ready to die, rallies and decides to finish his final canoe masterpiece with his grandson's help. The community unites behind them.

Yet there is more at stake here than a grandfather trying to rescue his grandson's future. Jinkaat is located at the edge of the Tlinglit traditional homeland, which is now a federally controlled reserve called Crystal Bay National Marine Reserve. As our story unfolds, a subplot pits Native government against the feds for control of the waters, with villagers split as to which side they are on. In a twist, it is the federal government who wants to see the area preserved, while the Tlinglit government wants to see some development. Meanwhile Old Keb has two very different daughters on opposite sides of the debate, adding to the fireworks.

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As tensions rise, Old Keb decides he wants to see his homeland by canoe one more time. With grandson James, a half-unhinged dog named Steve and a couple more friends, they steal away in their mostly completed canoe and disappear into the coves and inlets of wild Alaska. It is a chase, of sorts, with friends and supporters wanting to see him succeed, concerned family worried over his health, and the authorities wanting to make sure it doesn't become a political maneuver to sway public opinion one way or the other. Shenanigans are bound to ensue, and they do.

His second novel, Bluefeather, apparently took Heacox a dozen years to write. That may seem like a long time to produce a work of fiction (unless you're a fiction writer), but certainly the dogged attention to details that accompanies such a long process, combined with Heacox's wide experience as an artist and explorer, is what makes the book so special. Heacox has been writing about Alaska since 1991 and knows the land and its people well. There is an authenticity to his work that exists only with writers who have lived the stories they are telling. Besides books about the American National Parks system and Antarctica, he has written an acclaimed biography of John Muir, plus several nonfiction books of photography and two memoirs focused on Alaska. Ultimately Jimmy Bluefeather won the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for literary fiction, an award well-earned.

Reading Bluefeather is an immersive experience. The descriptions of the landscape, while spare, are breathtaking. One smells the smoke of bonfires, tastes the salt of the water and feels the damp of the air. Alaska, and the moody, turbulent waters of its coast, is an important character in the story.

Still, it is the human characters that make this book. Every village on the edge of "civilization" is going to have its share of oddballs, and Jinkaat is a place with its share and more. These personalities, whether supporting cast or frontline characters, are all handled with grace. The story may ultimately belong to Old Keb and James, but there are several other people with big stakes in how things play out, and everyone has their opportunity to own the spotlight. In particular I enjoyed the dialogue, and the consistent humor found therein, to be a highlight. It's a large cast to juggle—federal biologists and rangers, townspeople, Natives and non-Natives—and Heacox keeps them all in the air with skill. Even though several have but the smallest parts to play, I don't think anyone could be removed from the story without it suffering.

Alaska isn't a glamorous place, nor are its people. But Heacox does an admirable job showing us what life there can be like, warts and all. It's beautiful and difficult and sad and laugh-out-loud raucous.

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