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Reviewed by:
  • Building Fires in the Snow ed. by Martha Amore and Lucian Childs
  • Robert Lipscomb
Martha Amore and Lucian Childs, eds., Building Fires in the Snow. Fairbanks: U of Alaska P, 2016. 341 pp. Paper, $29.95.

The cover of Building Fires in the Snow declares that it is "a collection of Alaska LGBTQ short fiction and poetry." Though many of these texts certainly accomplish one of the two obvious tasks—namely, that works be set in Alaska and also offer unique narratives about queer people in that setting—the stories and poems that accomplish both provide the most insight for readers curious about the [End Page 473] territory and subject. Those works are also notable for standing out from the larger collection, which can read at times like a travelogue for the disaffected.

The most memorable and affecting works include poems by Elizabeth Bradfield, one of which relates surprising encounters with free-roaming moose and another that combines classical Greek and Cold War referents in order to examine frontier nostalgia. Two short stories by Lucian Childs foreground Alaska's cycles of oil boom and bust as they chart the evolution and movement of gay men over time. The narrator of "The Go-Between" becomes the intermediary in the fraught business negotiations between two ex-lovers, whereas "Black Spruce" frames the changing circumstances of an aging gay couple, in part by referencing two of the most iconic oil cities of the 1980s, Houston and Anchorage.

As is perhaps appropriate, many authors allude to the largest, grandest, or most iconic aspects of Alaska: the ubiquitous darkness of winter and the midnight sun of summer, the trees and wildlife, and the mountainous majesty, including the recently renamed Denali. But the most affecting and memorable details are those that, though granted a lower tier within the poetry and prose, nevertheless appear across the works of more than one author. Those details include the smell of Murphy's Oil Soap on exposed wood, Costco, and the raucous collection of LGBTQ clubs and bars situated on Anchorage's Fifth Avenue. Similarly, though many of the short stories and poems directly establish their thematic elements—the harm of homophobia, the loneliness of exile, the restorative power of the wilderness, the nostalgia of unrequited love—one of the more profound is Leslie Kimiko Ward's understated and haunting "Nest," where the prickly relationship between Elsa, an affirmed lesbian, and Mel, who is possibly (or possibly not) a lesbian, is subtly framed as the two housemates prepare to battle a yellow jacket nest in the attic.

The last work in the anthology, Mei Mei Evans's novella "Going Too Far," references the unfolding Watergate scandal to temporally situate sixteen-year-old runaway Tierney's flight to Alaska. Her journey brings her into contact with a rogue's gallery of self-described "roustabouts" and a collection of topless dancers, one [End Page 474] of whom becomes Tierney's first same-sex crush. Eventually, circumstances grant the underage narrator a new family when, in a remarkably traditional move, the lead dancer reforms and takes Tierney under her wing.

The Alaska of this anthology is not inhospitable to the LGBTQ community, though it is consistently depicted as unfriendly—sort of a Kansas with northern lights—where possibility persists precisely because it is at least a different place, not part of the Lower 48.

Robert Lipscomb
University of Nebraska–Lincoln


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pp. 473-475
Launched on MUSE
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