Kathryn Harrison

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"The Seal Wife"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)

The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison

Bigelow Greene, a twenty six year-old meteorologist from the Midwest, is hired by the Weather Bureau in 1915 and sent to the frontier boomtown of Anchorage, Alaska, to set up an observation station. Unfortunately, due to the department's new budget, the young man barely earns a living wage. He must find additional work to survive life in the harsh Arctic climate, where below freezing temperatures and 20 hour-long winter nights present a major challenge to one's sanity. "The Alaskan sun remains unknowable, every day a new prank, pulling along its bows and parhelia and other odd, errant optical paraphernalia, too lazy and distracted to achieve altitude, rolling along the tops of mountains, infusing the icy fog with a strange and sullen greeny glow." In his solitude, Bigelow sees all matter of surreal phenomena from his observatory windows which he would have never before called weather. He questions whether he can survive here. He doesn't think he has mastered the "required optimism" to do so. Descriptions of the physical world, like the one above, provoke one to wonder whether the landscape is depicted from a real life perspective or from an emotional one, a reflection of Bigelow's inner world?

There is a woman, called the Aleut, who lives in a frame house on the mud flats outside of Anchorage. Bigelow becomes obsessed with her. He finds her beautiful. He visits her. They drink tea, share meals, have sex. She bathes. He watches. They never talk. He knows nothing about the woman, about her life, her history, not even her name. Although he speaks to her, he never knows whether she understands him. However, she allows him to watch her "as intently, as much and as long, as he wants and the reason for this comes to him one night. She is self-possessed. She possesses herself." This makes him want her all the more. She becomes necessary to him. Then, one morning, she is gone. And he is shattered.

Bigelow, begins to drink and look for sexual pleasure with other women, mostly local prostitutes, to ease his pain. He is devastated by the Aleut's disappearance. He temporarily becomes involved with a shopkeeper's daughter, who sings, but is unable to speak. She stammers so violently that she communicates only through written notes. However, his fixation with the missing Inuit woman continues and follows him into his dreams. An introverted, sensitive man, Bigelow does not fit in with the coarser men from town and so he is left virtually alone.

The young scientist originally accepted his low paying job because it would give him the opportunity to prove a meteorological theory he had long been obsessed with. He hypothesizes that a great current of air sweeps in a circular fashion from the poles to the equator and back again, causing the air high over the poles to be warm, and the air over the equator cold. His dual obsessions with the meteorological project and with the Aleut woman continually vie for first place in his mind and with his energy. He designs and constructs an enormous kite to take temperature readings thousands of feet above the earth, which will enable him to prove his theory. The kite and his documentation also serve to distract him from his emotional pain and loneliness. The narrative focuses as much on Bigelow's inner obsession with the Aleut woman, as on his professional passion for charting the weather, with "recording a narrative that unfolds invisibly to most people." Unbeknownst to Bigelow, his newfound success with the kite has made a name for him in Anchorage as a scientific innovator. No matter how successful his work is, however, he finds no peace of mind.

The Seal Wife, is a finely detailed, well-researched historical fiction that concerns the development of scientific technology before WWI, turn-of-the-century Alaska, and the growth of one man's character. Kathryn Harrison's language is richly metaphorical, especially when she describes the Alaskan landscape as seen through Bigelow's eyes. Her characters, especially the women, are of mythological proportion, more archetypical than three dimensional, and extremely mysterious - although I find Bigelow to be quite realistic. I am a big fan of Ms. Harrison's and while this is an excellent novel, I do prefer her more contemporary works.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Seal Wife at Random House

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About the Author:

author photoKathryn Harrison was born in Los Angeles, California in 1961. Her parents were only eighteen when she was born and lived with her maternal grandparents who ended up raising her. As told in her memoir, The Kiss, Harrison's childhood relation with her mother was dysfunctional and she only saw her father twice in twenty years. Then, when she did meet her father she was manipulated into an incestuous affair that last four years. She also suffered from eating disorders for years.

She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1987, and from Iowa City moved to Brooklyn, New York, with Colin Harrison, whom she married in 1988. Her grandmother moved east and lived with them until her death, two months before her 92nd birthday. She got to see her first great-grandchild, Sarah, born in 1990. The Harrisons also have a son, Walker, born in 1992, and a younger daughter, Julia, born in 2000.

Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications.

She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.

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