The shadows that suffuse Don Rearden’s debut novel, “The Raven’s Gift,” began to gather in his mind in second grade, when his family moved to Akiak. There, Rearden saw and heard things that would haunt him the rest of his life: the abandoned houses across the Kuskokwim River, elders’ stories of epidemics that wiped out huge segments of the local population, even the old BIA building where he lived with his family and everyone said was haunted. Rearden’s imagination kicked into high gear.
“It caught my imagination — and it was easy to catch my imagination, I was in second grade,” Rearden said by phone last week from Anchorage. “Kids are all about monsters and ghosts, and I was living in a place where those were very much real.”
Many years later, those images and stories provided the inspiration for “The Raven’s Gift,” Rearden’s post-apocalyptic novel set on the Alaskan tundra, told in alternating time periods before and after a devastating epidemic. Published in 2011, the book was named 2012 Alaska Novel of the Year and landed Rearden a spot on the Washington Post’s Notable Fiction List for 2013, alongside authors such as Stephen King and Donna Tartt. The Post’s reviewer wrote:
“Any number of writers could have produced a fine literary novel about a young couple discovering Yup’ik culture. But only an exceptional writer could write that fine literary novel and then relegate it to back-story, using its fragments to heighten the eeriness and drama of what is an intense thriller. And yet ‘The Raven’s Gift’ also remains a love story — in fact, two love stories. What more could you ask?”
Earlier this week, the Rasmuson Foundation announced its support in helping Rearden’s “Raven” continue its journey in a new medium; Rearden is among the recipients of this year’s Rasmuson Project Award grants. He will receive $7,500 to make the book into a film based on his own screenplay. He hopes to shoot the film in Bethel, where he attended high school and returned after college to teach English, and wants local actors to be involved.
“I did pass on a Hollywood offer for it, “ Rearden said. “I wanted it to be told at home and I wanted to be part of writing it.”
The story, told through the perspective of a white teacher newly arrived with his wife in a Yup’ik village, describes what might happen if a modern version of those devastating historical epidemics were to hit Bush Alaska. Without giving too much away: It ain’t pretty, particularly since you can’t write it off as implausible.
Rearden’s story is dark enough that American publishing houses were afraid of it; the book was rejected no fewer than 32 times before being picked up by Pintail, a Canadian branch of Penguin. The Canadians apparently appreciated what American readers had to wait to find out: that the darkness of the tale is offset by strong, compassionate characters and an underlying sense of hope and faith in the power of human connection. In the story, the school teacher joins up with a Yup’ik girl and an old woman and the three journey together across the snowy tundra to find help while evading the pursuit of a mysterious skier who appears to be tracking them. Throughout this narrative are flashbacks to the schoolteacher’s life before the epidemic hit, describing his and his wife’s immersion in the community.
It’s a uniquely Alaskan story fed by Rearden’s own conflicted ideas about growing up amidst a culture that was not his own; in Akiak, and later Kasigluk, Rearden was usually the sole white kid in class and from the beginning was fascinated by the richness of Yup’ik culture and horrified by things that had happened to people. Some of those ideas came through in his novel in ways he can’t fully explain.
“I’m still piecing together and making sense of how I wrote a book about things I didn’t understand as a kid,” he said. “I don’t know how that stuff works. There’s a magic to it.”
Rearden, who now has family members who are Yup’ik, said when the book finally came out, he was nervous to see how it would be received at home.
“I was scared, to be completely honest, because I’m too aware of how Western culture has approached indigenous cultures and stolen their stories. I didn’t want anyone to think that’s what I was doing, I didn’t want to be accused of that. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go home — and that wasn’t the case at all. People were trading hand-made goods to get copies of (my book) and have been so incredibly generous and supportive.”
Though landing on the Post’s list was a big deal, the reaction of Alaskans was equally gratifying, Rearden said.
“Having Alaskans like it, that had as much meaning as anything to me,” he said. “What I like about the Alaskan reception is that it’s closer to home for people and it just carries a little more weight and meaning here. And it sheds some light on issues that Alaskans care about and reminds people of what’s truly important here.”
Fellow Alaskan authors have praised the book, including Eoywyn Ivy, Seth Kanter and David Vann, who wrote: “Don Rearden has created a kind of allegory for a people and place at risk, a generous and honest portrait of Yup’ik communities. His Alaska is one you won’t yet have seen.”
In addition to the screenplay for “The Raven’s Gift,” Rearden is working on two more manuscripts and trying to get his second novel published, “Moving Salmon Bay,” about a village that’s moving due to global warming.
“It still has maybe too many characters, it has maybe 15 storylines shifting back and forth. It’s all in the same time period but happening over the course of a day.”
So far the French have plans to publish it, but in the U.S. publishers are saying no, despite the success of his first book. Rearden is feeling slightly impatient.
“I hope I have a chance to share that book before it becomes old news, this idea of how America’s first climate refugees are going to be Alaskans — and they are Alaskans. That’s an important story I want to get out there so people can understand what’s coming and what people are living through right now. Alaska’s kind of the canary in the Arctic.”
Tonight, Rearden will lead a writing workshop in Juneau that will explore how to help writers create a fully realized world for their characters. It will be held from 6-9 p.m. at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center; preregistration is required. Find out more at www.49writingcenter.org.
49 Writers, launched as a blog in 2009 by Andromeda Romano-Lax and Deb Vanasse, is a still-expanding organization that offers a range of resources for writers in Alaska, including workshops, readings, interviews and blog posts, as well as an annual writers retreat. In the past few months, 49 Writers has expanded their offerings in Southeast, thanks in part to two new local board members, Joan Pardes and Katrina Pearson, and to the work of Executive Director Linda Ketchum.
Rearden, who has been board president since the beginning, said the literary scene all over Alaska continues to blossom, joking that it provides a needed counterweight to all the Alaska-based reality TV.
“It's a fun time right now to be in Alaska writing," he said. "This is kind of the place to be.”
For more on 49 Writers, visit 49writingcenter.org and 49writers.blogspot.com.
For more on Rearden, visit www.donrearden.com.
The following is an excerpt from "The Raven's Gift" by Don Rearden, published by Pintail.
The three of them headed north from the tall radar tower and turned east, skirting the houses at the edge of town. To the north the land flattened out into an unforgiving expanse of frosted tundra and lakes. The unabated wind blew the snow elsewhere, leaving them with hummocks and frozen clumps of moss to contend with. They weren’t leaving tracks, but they made almost no progress until they hit a slight ridge where wind had packed the snow hard.
The old woman had said little since they left the snow cave. He didn’t know if she was worried, or just mad at him. She protested his decision to explore what was left of the town, but since the tower and his mention of the light, he noticed her pace had quickened. She held the 20-gauge out in front of her as if a ptarmigan might fly up in front of them, or worse.
“Where are we going to sleep tonight?” the girl asked.
The old woman pointed toward the darkening sky behind them. “We’re going to need somewhere protected,” she said. “Maybe it’s going to get real windy, and bad cold. Least the snow will cover our tracks.”
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“It’s still now. See those high, thin clouds over there? Wind is coming.” She stopped walking and turned to him. “What do you expect to find?” she asked.
He shrugged and looked out over the town. He hoped no one was watching the horizon because he wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping below the skyline.
“We can keep going straight across here,” she said. “The river comes back around and past town. We can shortcut. We’ll camp in the brush by the tall bluffs, and then we won’t have to go into that bum town.”
“Maybe you two should go. I’ll check out town, and then come find you.”
“No,” the girl said. “I don’t want you to leave us.”
He pulled the rope to the sled tight. “Look,” he said to them both, “I need to know what the deal with the light is, maybe see if I can find some snowshoes, skis, or a sled. Anything to make travel easier. If it’s bad in town, we’ll get out. We’ll head that way and meet at the bluffs. Okay? Maybe we can find something out about the kids here.”
"If it’s bad, next time you’ll listen to what I have to say,” the old woman said.
The door to the first Blackhawk opened and a man in a Santa Claus suit shouted and waved to the villagers gathered at the edge of the mechanical blizzard settling around the two choppers. The door on the other aircraft slid open and two Anchorage-based news camera crews poured out, followed by unarmed National Guard troops carrying cases of Florida oranges, presents, and of all things, ice cream.
“I love it when Santa brings us fresh fruit,” Carl said with a smile.
”They do this every year?” Anna asked. She stood beside John, her arms folded around Nina, her new constant companion.
Carl nodded. “But I wish this year he was flying with reindeer. I could use some fresh meat.”
“Don’t say that in front of Nina!” Anna shouted over the chopper’s rotors.
“Think we’ll be able to get out caribou hunting? John asked.
“Maybe if we get more snow,” Carl said. “Maybe if the herd comes on this side of the mountains this year.”
“What’s the deal with the news people?” Anna asked.
Carl scowled. “Showtime. Look at how we bring happiness to the cute little Natives.”
Anna elbowed Carl and said. “What turned you into Mr. Scrooge!”
“Anna, John said, embarrassed at her jibe.
“You’re right, Anna,” Carl said. “I shouldn’t get mad about those news people. It’s just how they only show our kids to the rest of the state when they’re getting handouts from Santa in a Blackhawk. I’ll quit being Scrooge.” Then he smiled, and added, ”And then I’ll gladly take a case of oranges from Santa!”
They watched as the children gathered around the portly, white-bearded man in the Santa suit. The braver older kids pawed at his soft red jacket, the long pointy hat hanging down the side of his face, and his white gloves. The younger, shyer kids giggled behind their mittens and trailed behind him toward the gym for an early Christmas celebration. The news crews followed, with one petite reporter trying to walk and report, talking into the camera lens and struggling against the wind to keep her long brown hair from covering her face.
Anna laughed. “I think Mr. Scrooge here should be the village spokesperson,” she said.
“Me? No way,” Carl said. I’m too shy.”
“Speaking of shy, Anna said, patting her little sidekick on the head. “Go on Nina! Go see what Santa has for you.” The little girl shook her head and buried her face in the side of Anna’s snow pants.
Anna nudged Nina toward the group of kids. The girl clung to her leg, and Anna made exaggerated clown-like steps toward Santa with the little one in tow.
-- From “the Raven’s Gift” by Don Rearden, published by Pintail.