We just got back from The Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the groupers look majestic, the otters look calm, and the tuna looks…yummy. That’s right. If I was standing around with a spear on an island long, long ago (hunting grub for the family) I would have seen that silvery smooth fish glide by and thought: sandwich. With soft white bread and mayo. The reality is that I am deeply respectful of the ocean. It is the Great Underneath, meaning when I’ve swum in it (which has been maybe a dozen times and my feet have always been able to touch bottom), all I could think was: What is underneath me? Is it large? Does it have eyes? When I was a kid and I visited the Steinhart Aquarium on a field trip I remember looking in the big tank where the octopus resided. It wasn’t there. This just freaked me out more, kind of like seeing the empty snake cage with the door swinging open. This happened at the Aqarium when we peered into – again – the crafty octopus’s house, and saw…nothing. Until I looked up, where one curious, tentacled arm lingered. The rest of the huge creature was hidden above. They say it’s because it’s shy. I’m not entirely confident in that thesis. I do know I now have to include The Above among my reasons to not swim in the ocean. Oh, and one more thing. The ocean also includes creatures that have “mouth-arms,” and are moderately invisible. I say if you have to consider that while swimming, you’re better off staying dry.
My girls turned 14 this week. One went off to Washington D.C. and New York on a school trip; the other went with us to Monterey. One viewed the Lincoln Memorial at night, the Air and Space Museum and the FDR Memorial and the other slurped on a root beer float inside Knuckles Sports Bar. The Son babysat the Ridiculous Dog, ate his weight in pizza and made sure she was fed her incontinence medicine (“cork pills,” Mr. Halfstory calls them). At 14 I got sent to New York, too. It wasn’t an educational school trip, though. My Nana came with me and we toured the World Trade Center and visited Chock Full O’ Nuts while my mom dealt with A Serious Family Crisis; they needed me to not know a few things until I was older. Funny thing was, I already knew.
So, after estimating I would last about 6 minutes in the open ocean (and this is with a boat and maybe some flippers), I opened a book given to me by an intelligent and gorgeous friend (also thoughtful), titled The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I was immediately plunged into the knife-cold 1920’s Alaskan wilderness, where, it must be noted, I would last about 4 minutes, if the author’s descriptions are accurate. Judging by the back flap, they should be. This is a remarkable book. I was thinking: Snow Falling on Cedars meets The Tiger’s Wife. But it deserves more attention than that, and Ivey’s words on the farmers’ hardscrabble life anchors the tale to gritty reality. As said friend mentioned, it’s an “odd book,” but once started, you need to finish it right away. The pacing is that perfect. Just when you think you know what will happen, it doesn’t, or it happens in a twisty way. It is rather like an adult fairy tale (which was probably intentional and, if not, wow), where the reader constantly fears the characters’ decisions, because – as we all know – nature and fate bat last and they tend to slug around .900. Truly, you could read it just for the descriptive passages, the foxes and river otters, wolverines and snowflakes. It will suspend you in a dreamy state for awhile, all this talk of Alaskan moose and winter berries, but it’s worth it. And if you like strange, icy books, check out Smilla’s Sense of Snow, too.