Dear fearless reader,
I grew up hearing a story about a relative, a great-great aunt, who in rural Colorado shooed a black bear off her porch with her broom. I’ve always loved the story. I can picture her in a long skirt and a determined look on her face. In some ways, she’s always been a hero of mine.
I love black bear meat. One of my earliest memories if of eating barbecued meat from a black bear my dad shot. Then you add in the fact that over the years I have bungled a few hunting moments that would have allowed me to bring home a black bear. I’ve been keeping an eye out for another opportunity.
Long story short — this doesn’t end well for one black bear.
We live in a semi-rural area of Alaska. Moose, wolves, coyotes, fox, ermine. We’re used to wild animals passing through, and we enjoy finding their tracks and watching their comings and goings. Occasionally,we have an opportunity to fill our freezer. Our first fall living in this house, my husband shot an enormous bull moose in our driveway.
But somehow several summers ago when I woke to the sound of bumps and thumps early in the morning, I expected something tamer. My husband was out in a field camp for his work as a biologist, so I left my two daughters sleeping and, still wearing my nightgown, went downstairs to investigate. A feral cat had been traveling the neighborhood. I opened the front door and prepared to yell “scat.”
Instead, a good-sized black bear scrambled off the porch, just feet away from me.
Needless to say, I shut the door.
“It’s a bear,” I shouted up to my daughters. I was prepared to go to the window, to watch, but then I remembered. It was open season for black bears. I ran upstairs and grabbed my 30-06 rifle and began searching for ammunition. Out of a decorative tin on our dresser, I scraped together four bullets.
“Where is he?” I asked my oldest daughter.
Last I had seen, the bear was headed up the hill and into the trees. It seemed unlikely I would get a shot at him.
“He’s by the rocks,” my daughter said.
Rocks? As I loaded the rifle, I tried to picture where on the hill there were rocks.
The bear had returned and was standing by the rocks in our front yard. Wishing I had a box of ammunition instead of just four bullets, I stepped barefoot out our back door and peered around the corner of the house. My daughter watched out the window.
As I stood at the corner of the house in my nightgown, the black bear turned sideways to me and I took my shot.
This is the amazing neighborhood we live in: just down the road, Craig and Jenny are the kind of people who will drop everything to lend a hand. And across the street, Donna and Karl have the same generous hearts. Oh, and did I mention Karl guides brown bear hunters for a living?
All of them showed up in my yard and helped with the girls and with field-dressing the bear. It is no easy task, skinning, gutting, and quartering a bear. I have assisted with many moose and caribou, but this was my first bear, and I was grateful for the help.
We took much of the meat to a local butcher and had it made into fabulous hot dogs, which we roasted over campfires and ate in buns, or diced up in spaghetti, or sliced and fried with eggs. We also saved a few roasts and packages of stew meat as well. It was all delicious and wonderful.
Last summer I was driving around in our pickup truck with a stray dog, trying to find its owner, when I met one of our lake-side neighbors for the first time. We talked for a bit, and then his eyes got wide and he said, “Wait. You’re the lady who shot the black bear.” And he held out his hand to shake mine.
I admit it. I was kind of proud. I was keeping a family legend alive.
Thank you all to who participated in my poll. And thanks for the kind comments from Julie, Melissa, and Lola.
I thought the poll was kind of fun, and interesting. In many ways, the votes aligned with what I expected. However, the fact that nobody voted for the tales of a bookseller almost makes me want to share a few stories from Fireside Books just so you know how interesting it can be. (You would be amused, touched, and amazed at what we find in the boxes of used books people bring in.)
Outside of this streak of rebelliousness, though, the feedback will help me a lot in guiding how I divvy up my letter topics. The overwhelming winner was “life and adventures in Alaska,” which is wonderful because I love writing about Alaska. It really is an amazing place to live.
The next preferred topics were the writing life, The Snow Child, and one vote for “books I’m reading.” Strangely enough, I think the percentages equate pretty well with how much time and space I’ve devoted to these topics — mostly Alaska, some about my novels, and a mention here and there of books I’m reading.
In honor of “adventures in Alaska” being the top vote-getter, I had planned on at last telling you the story about the black bear on my porch. But yesterday we Alaskans got news of a horrible bear attack not far from where I live. Seven teenagers, here from New York, New Mexico and all over the country, were participating in an outdoor leadership school when they were attacked by a brown bear with a cub. Two of the youths suffered life-threatening injuries, and all were injured to some degree. The experience must have been incredibly traumatic to everyone involved, including the teachers and other students in the school.
It is a sober reminder to the hazards of the wilderness, and it didn’t feel right telling a different kind of bear story without first acknowledging this recent situation and sending out my wishes for a fast recovery for all involved.
On Wednesday, though, I’ll share my Alaskan bear tale.
Dear opinionated reader,
So here it is – my very first poll. I have to admit, ever since I launched this blog, I’ve wanted to conduct a poll. So please respond. The answers will help guide me as I continue to send you letters each week. Let me know — what are your favorite topics?
P.S. I’ve noticed that if you pick “Other” and write in the topic you’d like to see, I can’t see your note. Please leave a comment instead, so I can know what other topics you would enjoy reading about.
Dear worldly reader,
One of the side-effects of all this book excitement is that I have become an obsessive email checker. As much as I try, I cannot walk by my laptop without taking a quick peek.
To be honest, it was a relief to be out of internet/phone range while I floated the Copper River. As much as I enjoy the roller-coaster ride of publishing, there is a purity that comes with any time I spend in the wilderness. Life is reduced to necessity — food, clothing, shelter, safety. You don’t worry about Twitter or Facebook or online reviews. You worry about having enough clean water to drink and staying warm enough, finding a place to unroll your sleeping bag and not shooting a hole in the raft if you have to scare off a bear in the night.
But as soon as I returned to civilization, after I had hugged my family and taken a shower, well … I got online.
“See?” I told my husband with a touch of panic and excitement in my voice. “See? THIS is why I have to check my email.”
One of the first emails I came across was from my UK editor. She was sending my first glimpse of their beautiful cover for my book.
Then the roller coaster nose dived. There was an email from the publisher of Little, Brown. My fabulous editor, Andrea Walker, had announced that she would be leaving to become senior fiction editor at Penguin Press. This is the editor who acquired my book, who worked with me the past year to prepare it for publication, who had the vision for the cover. We had come to enjoy each other both as colleagues and friends. I was sad, but also excited for her. And, ultimately, I was calmed by the knowledge that my book continues to be in the hands of the amazing Reagan Arthur and everyone else at Little, Brown & Co.
Then, scanning through the inbox, my eye caught on a chain of messages titled “Lithuania.” The emails were between my agent and Tracy, who handles foreign rights at Little, Brown.
Yep. While I was floating down the river, the UK settled on a cover, my editor announced her departure, and The Snow Child sold to Metodika, a publisher in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
“See,” I said to Sam, just in case he hadn’t heard the first few times. “I’m telling you. That’s why I have to check my email ALL the time.”
Dear persevering reader,
When my husband Sam and I set out on the Copper River last week in a 14-foot raft, I knew we would travel through wild, beautiful places. It was an opportunity for me to get to know a landscape that I have been walking through in my imagination for months. What I didn’t yet comprehend was the powerful nature of this river.
Earlier this year, I was awarded a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to enable me to float the river to research my next novel. We went armed with a camera, a write-in-the-rain journal, field identification books, maps, freeze-dried food, the report of an 1885 expedition up this same river, chest waders, rain gear, and a rifle for bear protection.
We launched the raft with the help of a friend near Chitina, Alaska, and spent the next week floating to Cordova, toward the ocean. Every second, the Copper discharges more than 400,000 gallons of icy, silty water. In that deep gray beneath our raft, thousands of sockeye salmon swam toward their spawning grounds.
About half-way through the 80-mile trip, seals began to appear. They would surface and bob near the raft, their eyes wide and watchful. Occasionally one would have a salmon in its mouth. One morning, they awoke us from our tent with their playful splashing in the river.
Wherever we pulled out on the river bank, we saw sign of bears. Tracks in the sand, piles of scat, bloody salmon remains in the bushes. We tried to camp where there was the least amount of bear traffic, but it seemed inevitable that we would eventually see one. Not far from Haley Creek, there she was — a female brown bear with two cubs. She walked along the beach, stopping occasionally to eye us and wait for her cubs. I could have watched her all day from that safe distance, but the river swept us away.
We encountered every kind of weather — sunshine that scorched our faces, winds that kicked up sand storms and white caps on the river, drizzly rain. Sam rowed us around giant, swirling eddies, through Abercrombie Rapids, and between house-sized icebergs from Miles Glacier. We floated through towering canyons, past waterfalls and sand dunes, ancient glaciers, and the decaying remnants of a railroad that brought copper out of the mountains 100 years ago. In the distance, we heard glaciers calving and it sounded like canons being fired.
All the while I had the growing realization that this place was relentless, that no matter feats of engineering or little rubber rafts, this river was rushing, cold and silty, to the ocean just as it has for thousands of years.
At one point, Sam and I watched the wind obliterate paw prints across a sand bar.
“Tracks don’t last long around here,” he said.
Dear diligent reader,
This is the time of year in Alaska when we begin to reap the rewards of our hard work. We’ve hauled the water from the creek, tilled and raked the garden, cleaned the chicken coop. We’ve weeded and planted and built fences.
Now, halfway through summer, we remember why.
Earlier this spring, when there was still snow outside, my 4-year-old daughter and I planted kale, broccoli and other seeds. For weeks they grew in front of the window. They were leggy, pale things. We transplanted them into the garden, and watered them and fed them with seaweed fertilizer. Now they are stout and dark green.
And with 20 hours of daylight and lush greenery to feed on, our hens are laying a half dozen eggs a day. The yolks are as bright as the sun.
The other morning, I went down to the garden and picked a handful of kale. Then I gathered the eggs. Back in the kitchen, I made the best omelet I can imagine ever eating. It was worth it all.
P.S. I’m taking a quick break next week, but I’ll be back the following — hopefully with some interesting stories to share.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who met a wolf in the woods …
or, there was an old man and old woman who more than anything wanted a child of their own …
or a boy who caught a fish that spoke to him …
or two children with an evil step-mother …
or a bag of magic beans …
Both THE SNOW CHILD and my novel-in-progress have a framework built of fairy tales. I’ve always been fascinated by these deceptively simple stories, and the art, novels, and movies they inspire. A friend of mine, Annie Aube, turns fairy tales into subversive, sometimes disturbing embroidery art. One of my favorite films, PAN’S LABYRINTH, is a Spanish civil war fairy tale. One of my favorite books is THE LIFE OF PI. In each of these, there is the question of what is real and what is fairy tale, and of how and why we translate experience into fairy tale. In the case of Annie Aube’s art, the question is turned upside down, and the stories are viewed through a new lens.
Earlier this week, the author Neil Gaiman recommended through Twitter this incredible New York Times article on fairy tales. It is written by Valerie Gribben, a medical student who finds the connections between her favorite childhood book of Grimm’s fairy tales and what she sees at the hospital each day.
“Fairy tales are, at their core, heightened portrayals of human nature, revealing, as the glare of injury and illness does, the underbelly of mankind,” she writes.
At the same time, I stumbled upon this quote online —
“Fairy tales are experienced by their hearers and readers, not as realistic, but as symbolic poetry.” — Max Luthi
Between these two interpretations, I feel like I’m coming closer to understanding why I am drawn to fairy tales. They speak a kind of truth — one of human longing and suffering — but do it through poetic, symbolic language that enables us to see beauty and goodness even as we look at the darkness.
Hope your day is happily ever after,
Just a short note today. We’re thawing a salmon fillet and picking rhubarb to get ready for the annual celebration at our friend’s farm. There will be bison burgers, grilled salmon, potato salad, pies, and a whole kitchen full of other delicious food. There will be several generations of friends — the grown-ups will talk about summer fishing trips and autumn hunting plans, the younger ones will jump on the trampoline or play on the swing set.
But the main purpose of the afternoon, besides celebrating Independence Day, is volleyball. This isn’t the beach game, or the indoor knee-pad version. This is farmer-regulation volleyball. We play it in a dusty field where the lines are marked by dragging a foot through the dirt. The rules are simple — get the ball to the other side of the net. Carrying? What’s that? As the evening progresses, you might even get away with a double-hit or helping your teammate’s serve clear the net. The older children who have watched this annual game for years will join in, learning the peculiar rules — don’t duck when the ball is coming at you. Instead, call “Yours” at the last minute and step aside so that your teammate has to dive into the dirt to save the play. If you have to take a break, offer to bring back drinks from the house for anyone who wants them.
We play for hours. Our muscles give out well before daylight fades because this time of year it never gets truly dark. We hate to let the night end. As we’ve all gotten older and taken on the responsibilities of adulthood, this is often the only volleyball game of the year. So we have to make it count.
When I announced last week that I would draw names to give away a few advance reader copies of my novel, I anticipated only fun and good cheer. Instead I feel humbled by the response, and a bit lousy because I can’t give each and every one of you a copy. What kind of author says no to someone who wants to read her book?
I decided to draw names the old-fashioned way (random.org proved too intimidating.) Last night my daughter and I wrote all the names on identical size and color pieces of paper, folded them in half, and put them in a black hat. I then held the hat well above her head, and my daughter drew the names.
In hopes of garnering some sympathy for my difficult plight, I first want to list some of the people who did NOT win: a few of my favorite customers at Fireside Books did NOT win. New friends. Old friends. Readers who came to me because another author said they should. My grandmother’s best friend. The members of my book club, my very own Betties — not one of them won. My flesh-and-blood relatives. My dear new Italian friend — the one who promised me her first unborn child and, more importantly a ride on her Vespa through Rome for Pete’s sake — did NOT win an ARC. And my favorite librarian, the one who orders research books for me from other libraries — she did NOT win an ARC. The gods of literacy are surely going to smite me down.
But, all that said, I am thrilled to get to announce the five people whose names did get pulled out of the hat. The list includes a couple of old friends and a few people I haven’t had the privilege of meeting yet. You are among my very first readers, and I am honored that you want a copy. I hope you enjoy it. And feel free to share it with friends, relatives, and neighbors who might want to read it as well.
And the winners are …
Mary Lu M.
and Linda R.
If you are one of the winners, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a mailing address, and I’ll send the ARC your way.
Those of you who did not win, don’t give up yet. I still have a few copies left, although fewer than I thought. I plan to do at least one more contest before the Feb. 1 publication date.
Thank you all again for your enthusiasm, explanation points, and offers of bribes. You’re the best!
If you haven’t already, today is the last day to enter the drawing for an advance reader copy of my novel, THE SNOW CHILD. Visit my June 22 post and write in the comments “I want an ARC!” I’ll choose the winners using random.org, and tomorrow I’ll announce them here on the blog. Because I have nearly 40 entrants already, I’m going to give away 5 copies, so your odds will be better than 1 in 10.
And those of you who don’t win, don’t give up. I’ll still have a few ARCs, so during the months between now and the Feb. 1 publication date, I’ll offer a couple more drawings.