Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Thaw," an excerpt from Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

Sometimes you find the book, and sometimes the book finds you.  This was the case for me when, earlier this year, I walked into the Barnes and Noble in Bozeman, Montana "just to get a latte" (i.e., I wasn't on a typical book-buying mission).  I was walking toward the cafe when it happened: Glaciers found me.  It was like one of those "meet cute" scenes in movies when the pretty brunette dogwalker and the distracted guy with the briefcase, walking in opposite directions, round a corner at the same time and he ends up tangled in leashes and tails and she knocks the briefcase out of his hand, spilling papers all over the sidewalk.  That's how it was for me with Alexis M. Smith's slim, pretty novel.  A chance encounter.  A walking past, then a double-take and a doubling-back.  A glance at the cover.  A skim of the plot summary, blurbs and first sentence ("Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably will never go.").  An eye-poke of interest.  An impulse buy.

It was the best thing I bought all year (and that includes the 2011 GMC Acadia my wife and I just purchased).

The novel chronicles one day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-eight-year-old library worker, as she repairs damaged books, prepares for a party, and pines for a co-worker, an Iraq War veteran named "Spoke."  As a single woman living in Portland, Oregon, Isabel haunts thrift stores and collects second-hand items like postcards, teacups, aprons, dresses--the cast-off remnants which were once new, happy purchases by someone decades earlier.  "She feels a need to care for them that goes beyond an enduring aesthetic appreciation," Smith writes.  "She loves them like adopted children."

It's fitting that Isabel collects scraps of the past because she is a character who lives primarily in memory.  The book slips seamlessly between the present and Isabel's childhood growing up in Alaska and Portland with her mother, father and sister Agnes.  Written in sentences as simple and delicate and beautiful as a single strand of a spider's silk, Glaciers reads like a literal dream.  We move through the pages quickly, as if floating just above the words, and it's over before we want it to be.  I could have stayed in Isabel's world for a long, long time.

Glaciers is easily one of the best books I've read this year.  It's beautifully packaged by Tin House Books--French flaps, deckle-edge pages, generous white space around the text--and even more gorgeous, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.  I was so impressed by Smith's writing that I emailed her and asked if I could reprint one of those chapters, "Thaw," here at the blog.  Happily, she said Yes; and so, with the publisher's permission, here is just one of the many stunning shards of Glaciers.


When Isabel was small, her father worked on the North Slope for what seemed like months at a time. It was actually two weeks on, two weeks off, but time seemed to go on longer then.

In the winter, the Slope was a dark, starry place, with a colony of busy fathers working in the snow and ice. In the summer, the light never ended, and they measured one hour to the next by the beeps on their digital watches, eating periodically from vending machines. Isabel knew about the vending machines because when her father came home he always brought a candy bar for Agnes and Isabel to share.

The girls couldn’t sleep summer nights, because of the light slipping in from outside. And on nights when their father was coming home, they waited up for him and the candy bar. She remembers running into his arms; the cold petroleum smell of his work clothes.

But when they asked questions about where he had been and what he had been doing, he said very little. Only their mother told them what they wanted to know about oil underground and the dividend checks the family received every year.

One winter night, their father came home early. His left hand was wrapped in bandages like a fat white mitten. There had been an accident; his hand was smashed. After a couple of days, they removed the bandages to take pictures, pictures Isabel can still draw up in her mind: horizontal blue lines where fingernails should have been; swollen, flat, crooked fingers that all curved in the same direction at the middle joint.

Daddy, why are your fingers going west? Isabel asked. Having just learned how to use a compass, she believed left was always west.

There was no answer. He thought he would never play guitar again.


Years later, in Portland, their father began to tell them his stories. They trickled out of him, as if his past were slowly melting: the early days of long winters snowed in at the homestead; his father shooting the first moose to wander down the driveway in the fall; moose sandwiches for months; working summers as a teenager, cleaning trash and outhouses in camp grounds (banging a big aluminum spoon against the garbage pails to frighten off bears); leaving home at sixteen to play music with feckless friends; his father getting their band a gig at a bar (brothel) in Kenai, not asking how his father knew the owner (madam); searching piles of fish heads for a human hand at the cannery one summer; the fishing boat he sank all his money into; the friend who sank the boat; and, eventually, working on the North Slope.

There were only two places to work, he said: the canneries or the Slope. He had worked both. It was an explanation and an apology. Though for what, Isabel still wasn’t sure. He always seemed to be flying away from them when they were little girls. Isabel thought that he believed this was the reason their mother stopped loving him. That was an easy explanation, but the apology was more complicated.

There was the pipeline and the oil that thrummed through it. There was evidence of harm all around—as close as the end of his arm. Beyond, there was the spill that coated the sea and the coastline and all the animals. Then there was the thaw, the threateningly deep, vast thaw: a lucid dream of a legacy for children who know better but cannot stop it.

Isabel cannot read magazine articles or books about the North. She cannot watch the nature programs about the migrations of birds and mammals dwindling, the sea ice thinning, and the erosion of islands. And she does not want to know what has happened to her great-grandmother’s house by the woods, sold years ago to people who let gutted cars rot in the front yard.

When she thinks about her northern childhood now, she thinks of her father, flying to the Slope with all the other fathers, toiling in permafrost. She sees him in his work coat and heavy boots, hardhat over a woolen skullcap, slipping coins into the slot of a vending machine, pressing the button and hearing the clink and the drop, reaching his undamaged left hand through the metal flap for the candy bar.

© 2012 Alexis M. Smith

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