Picture of dog-sledding in Alaska

The stark Alaskan landscape plays a starring role in M.J. McGrath's new book, The Boy in the Snow.

Photograph by Alaska Stock, Corbis  

By Don George

Book of the Month: The Boy in the Snow, by M. J. McGrath

As someone who has never been there, I tend to invest Alaska with monumental mystery as America’s Last Great Place, and when I try to picture the state, iconic images march through my mind: Mount McKinley, Glacier Bay, the Kenai Peninsula.

M. J. McGrath’s new mystery, The Boy in the Snow, transports us to a different Alaska. Our guide on this journey, as in McGrath’s acclaimed first book, White Heat, is a smart, sassy, half-Inuit, half-outsider woman named Edie Kiglatuk. In this new book, Kiglatuk has ventured far south from her home on Ellesmere Island near the North Pole to help her ex-husband run Alaska’s famed Iditarod Race.

As the book opens, Kiglatuk discovers the lifeless body of a baby abandoned in the forest outside Anchorage. Her attempts to unravel this mystery lead us deep into the physical and mental landscape of Alaska. We encounter vast tundra, ice fields, wind-whipped snowstorms, spruce and alder forests, and spirit bears, owls, foxes, ravens, eagles, and wolves. At the same time, we also journey into the minds of tradition-revering Old Believers, Washington-dreaming politicians, beleaguered indigenous tribespeople, kind-hearted Goth waitresses and scheming outsider entrepreneurs.

McGrath illuminates Alaska’s nuances in sinewy prose, as evidenced in this exquisite passage: “Irrespective of their exact geography, tundra settlements seemed to share the same three or four characteristics: a desolate, disposable quality, almost but not quite like a lack of self-esteem, a sense of insignificance, of being dwarfed and outclassed by the landscape all around and a weird feeling of absolute license, which persisted despite the fact that you could be in no doubt that news of your every splutter and fart was likely to be all around town before you’d had a chance to do so much as pull up your pants.”

As it twistingly unfolds, Kiglatuk’s obsessed quest for the truth behind an abandoned baby offers fresh insights into Alaska’s evolving character, complexities, and allure.

New Book Roundups:

Historical Fiction: Russia and Brazil

Stalin’s Barber, by Paul M. Levitt, follows Avraham Bahar as he moves from cutting hair in economically depressed Albania to becoming Stalin’s personal barber at the Kremlin. There he attends to the coiffure of not only the dictator but also the numerous Stalin look-alikes employed to help defend against assassination attempts like the one Bahar himself plans. In Spilt Milk, Chico Buarque’s award-winning novel recently translated into English, Eulálio D’Assumpção lies dying and tells the story of his life as a privileged youth in Rio, the mysterious death of his senator father, and his eventual decline into poverty, all painted on the lush backdrop of a rapidly changing Brazil.

Icy Reads: Alaska and Antarctica

In Far Alaska, the second novel by Mason Smith, an aging farmer sheds his staid life in upstate New York for a last hurrah in the Great Northwest. Accompanied by his neighbor’s much younger daughter, he travels across Canada in a pickup truck witnessing bank robberies and horse thefts, grizzly bears and saloon brawls. Ernest Shackleton’s thwarted attempt at crossing Antarctica made famous what he called “the last great polar journey that can be made.” In Shackleton’s Dream, a non-fiction account by Stephen Haddelsey, a group of explorers take up the challenge 40 years later and battle minus 129°F temperatures, tractor-swallowing crevasses, and infighting between the two famous explorers leading the expedition—Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Travelogues: The Hotelier and the Poet

In his memoir, Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky, a veteran of the hospitality industry, provides tips on everything hotel-related (from tipping to avoiding same-day cancellation penalties) while giving insights into what really happens behind the front desk. Award-winning poet and writer Melanie Challenger travels the world—from Cornwall to the Falkland Islands—looking for stories with the theme of “extinction” and hoping to find answers on how we deal with, and perhaps prevent, this most massive of losses in On Extinction.

One Last Thing:

Great Fiction Writers’ True Travel Tales

What do Joyce Carol Oates, Alexander McCall Smith, Frances Mayes, Peter Matthiessen and Isabel Allende have in common? They’re all acclaimed authors of best-selling works of fiction—and they all generously agreed to write original non-fiction tales for the new anthology I edited, Better Than Fiction. The genesis of this collection was a tantalizing question: What would we get if we asked distinguished fiction writers to describe their most meaningful non-fictional journeys? The answer is 32 soul-expanding tales, set around the world from Antarctica and Argentina to Sulawesi and South Africa, that manifest a shared passion for the gifts that travel confers: from its often unexpected but always enriching lessons about other people and places to the truths—sometimes uncomfortable but always enlarging—it reveals about ourselves.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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