I just finished reading the late Alaska author Marjorie Kowalski Cole‘s award-winning novel Correcting the Landscape for the second time. And I’m still impressed by the quietness of this book, and how it lulls you in, how it wraps around you in the simplest and yet most secure of ways.
The book, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction (judged by Barbara Kingsolver), takes place in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the winter landscape comes through so clearly that I often had to stop reading to make myself a cup of tea (winters in Fairbanks typically see temps in the -30 range).
The plot revolves around Gus Traynor, publisher of a small-town dying newspaper, and his relationship with the town’s residents, as well as the town’s landscape.
Following a series of complex subjects, the story wraps itself around deceptively simple situations. Trees are cut down to make way for ugly tourist cabins; advertisers pull out after Traynor publishes op-ed pieces in support of a controversial library book; his hard-drinking best friend falls in love with a New-Age sculptor; there’s a gay poet with a yearning soul; a sister unlucky in both love and happiness; a troubled village girl found dead in the river; and Traynor finds himself falling in love with a Native woman who’s been married five times and is determinedly putting herself through college.
And, oh yes, there’s a ugly and offensive statue that shadows the story, acting as a metaphor for the town’s voice (a voice determined to subdue ugly pieces of its past). When this statue has a bit of a disagreement with a CAT machine, I almost cheered.
Yet what I loved most about Correcting the Landscape is the writing. “Sometimes winter closes down on Fairbanks like a cell door,” Kowalski-Cole writes.
Sadly, Kowalski-Cole died of cancer in 2009. She was only in her fifties.
It’s odd, isn’t it, reading a book by someone who is no longer alive and yet still feeling that connection, that intimacy, that bond of familiarity that flows so strongly between reader and writer.
I wish I could have met Marjorie. I would have loved to have had tea with her, and talk about writing and words, simple and quiet things.