- Where We Land: Stories by Daryl Farmer
In her 1972 book, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood argues that the governing trope of British literature is the island, while for American literature it is the frontier. Canadian literature, Atwood holds, is defined by the brute theme of survival, be it on the journey, in the storm, or on the sinking ship.
Thematically, Alaskan writers may be closer to their Canadian neighbors than their fellow Americans in the Lower 48. The characters we meet in Daryl Farmer's excellent new collection of stories, Where We Land, are survivors, usually dealing with the consequences of their own decisions. The opening line of "On the Old Denali Road" spells it out: "To not get yourself in the situation in the first place: that was the key to winter survival in Alaska" (39). Driving alone in a remote part of Denali Park (against which he'd been warned), the protagonist crashes after swerving to avoid a moose. With a broken arm and counting the hours before he freezes to death, the man extracts himself from his disabled vehicle and seeks shelter. He is driven by shame as much as the instinct to survive, for among his fellow Alaskans he knows "there would be no sympathy for such stupidity" (42).
Social environment can be just as brutal as the elements. In "Skinning Wolverines," set in the Alaskan bush village of Kakarak, a headmaster harasses his female teachers and, perversely, sabotages the school's generator. The villagers know better than to call the authorities: "in the Alaskan bush, law enforcement's a matter you deal with on your own" (109). Unsurprisingly, no one likes the headmaster, and when he suffers a life-threatening accident the villagers [End Page 472] must decide whether to aid him. Reaching the taut, expertly balanced conclusion, the reader wrestles with the moral consequences of their choice.
Many of Farmer's characters are walking wounded. The father of "In the Long Shadow of a Winter Morning" cannot adequately explain to his estranged daughter why he deserted their family. Predictably, the daughter is angry and confrontational. The reasons for this man's cold-hearted distance are never made clear—he does not fully understand them himself—yet, in a moving conclusion, father and daughter gradually grow closer. The coarse physicality of chopping wood bonds them, "their mutual exhalations merging and rising, disappearing into the crisp Alaskan air" (179). Many times Farmer delivers this much-needed measure of hope, though he is often spare in his serving.
Farmer is by turns an experimental writer, challenging genre conventions in "Glass Fragments on the Shoulder of Highway 375," written as a hybrid story-essay, or "Anniversary," a story written in a single sentence spanning seven pages. There are also several strong flash fiction pieces sprinkled throughout. Unifying the stories in this diverse collection is that theme of survival, in all its grimy glory, and Daryl Farmer's superb prose. Written in lucid, polished sentences inspiring both angst and awe, Where We Land is a fine collection celebrating "the great unfinished jigsaw puzzle of our human lives" (117).