Memory and imagination are woven together in Juneau resident Annie Boochever’s debut novel “Bristol Bay Summer,” released earlier this month through Alaska Northwest Books. Though Boochever structured her book around things that actually happened to her during a summer she spent in Naknek as a young mother, she’s given reality an interesting twist by recasting the story through the perspective of her daughter, Liorah, called Zoey in the book. This shift in perspective makes the book a work of fiction in her mind.
“I think a lot of people kind of fall into a trap of telling a true story and being really careful to make it the truth, but to make a really good book to read, sometimes you have to make it fiction,” Boochever said.
Boochever will give a reading and talk about the book at the Alaska State Historical Library at noon Thursday, May 15.
She wrote the book while pursuing a master’s in creative writing, and said she’d always wanted to write about her Bristol Bay summer, an experience that had a huge impact on her.
“I’d never been to Bristol Bay before,” Boochever said. “I was living in Anchorage at the time, divorced, and had this Bush pilot boyfriend. He was going to make his fortune hauling fish at a set-net site and we just kind of tagged along — myself and my dog and my two kids. That was the inspiration for the story.”
With the freedom granted by fiction, Boochever shifted the time period to better reflect the difficulties her daughter faced after Boochever’s divorce, which didn’t come to a head until some years later.
“I flash-forwarded her age, because I thought that was the real heart of the matter for her growing up.” Boochever said. “It was the same circumstances as when she was six, but her issues and what she’s dealing with were as a 12-going-on-13-year-old girl.”
Boochever, a lifelong Alaskan, has already garnered high praise for her prose and authentic portrayal of Bristol Bay. Early reviewers include former Alaska State Writer Laureate Peggy Shumaker, author Debby Dahl Edwardson, songwriter Jewel and set-net fisherman Sue Aspelund. Aspelund wrote that the book “perfectly captures both the coming of age of a young adult in this uniquely Alaskan setting (and) provides insights into the profound rich cultural heritage of this fishery.”
Aimed at middle-grade readers, “Bristol Bay Summer” tells the story of Zoey, who unhappily arrives in Bristol Bay with her younger brother, Eliot (Zach in real life), and her mother’s boyfriend, Patrick, the pilot of the Cessna 185 that gets them around. The Cessna is also Patrick’s livelihood: he uses it to haul fish and spot herring. Zoey struggles with antagonism for Patrick and with anger toward her mom for dragging her away from her life in Anchorage. She also has conflicted ideas about her dad, who left the family and hasn’t been in touch in more than a year. Zoey hatches a plan to go see him, and starts squirreling away money to make her escape. All the while, despite her reluctance, the hard work of fishing and the people she meets in Bristol Bay begin to help her smooth out those inner knots.
Boochever’s daughter gave input as she crafted Zoey’s character, but Liorah mostly stood back and let her mom’s imagination go to work. Liorah also supplied illustrations for the book, which Boochever will share in Thursday’s talk.
Boochever also sought input from her former boyfriend, who still fishes in Bristol Bay. He was “tickled” to hear she was turning their adventures into fiction.
“He was sort of my advisor,” she said. “I’d email him, ‘What do you call that thing? What happens when you’re doing this?’ He was just terrific.”
Boochever and the Bush pilot parted ways not long after that summer and she eventually married her current husband, Scott Miller, adding two more children to her family.
Boochever’s interests in the arts were fostered at a young age by her mother, Connie, a powerhouse in the Juneau arts community. Connie Boochever served on the first Alaska State Arts Council, founded Juneau’s Community Theater and the Juneau Arts and Humanities Forum. In 2001, the state arts council established the Connie Boochever Fellowship to honor her, awarded every other year to emerging artists.
Boochever’s father, Robert, was also a prominent Alaskan: he served as an Alaska Supreme Court Justice in the 1970s and was later appointed by Jimmy Carter to be the first Alaskan on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I didn’t follow in my dad’s footsteps at all,” Boochever said with a laugh.
Before becoming a published author, Boochever worked in the Juneau School District for decades as a music teacher and librarian. She now has several other book projects in the works.
Though retired from teaching, Boochever still thinks like one; she has some ideas about how “Bristol Bay Summer” could be introduced in a classroom setting.
“I think it would lend itself really well to opening kids' eyes to what Bristol Bay is all about, especially in light of the big controversy with the Pebble Mine,” she said. “I think it’s really important that they know what everyone is talking about, what’s at stake there.”
Boochever’s presentation Thursday will be the first of three author lectures at the Alaska State Historical Library. Also featured will be Ryan Tucker Jones on June 12, author of “Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867,” and Ross Coen on July 10, author of “Owning the Ocean: Alaska Fishermen and the Japanese ‘Invasion’ of Bristol Bay, 1937-1938.”
The lectures are free and open to the public.
For more on Boochever and “Bristol Bay Summer,” visit annieboochever.net.