Review: Lots happens in this Southeast Alaska tale - and it's not pretty

Marcia Simpson's book shows what substance abuse can do to a family

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

A page preceding the text of "Rogue's Yarn" gives a definition for this nautical jargon: "A brightly colored strand woven contrary to the braid of a rope to show the strength or purpose of the rope."

This title serves as an excellent clue - pun intended - to the prose that follows.

The story begins in a Southeast Alaska town called Tern Bay. In the first few pages, the reader learns that Tern Bay is "a dinky doo town where nothing ever happened," where the arrival of the afternoon mail plane carrying permanent fund checks is an event worth celebrating, and where your brain turns to sponge. The main characters are Jess, a thin, blonde single mother who's not much of a housekeeper; and her three children: Bo, 15 and 6 feet tall; Tom, an anxious 10; and October Rain or Toby, a wrinkled-faced three, a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who cannot speak or dress herself and still takes a bottle. The father of Bo and Tom drowned. The father of Toby was just passing through.

In other words, it's a portrait of Alaska that residents may find hard to swallow. It's a portrait that readers Outside may swallow whole; Midwest Book Review, for example, believes that Simpson's novel "brings the isolation of the (Alaskan) frontier into a potent literary vision." And that vision gets worse when Jess ingratiates herself and her offspring with a couple of "fishermen" who are not really transporting fish.

When four $800 PFD checks arrive on the mail plane, Jess declares the family must go south to Mexico or Disneyland - or they'll all turn into "moonmen."

"You want a sponge for a brain?" Jess asks Bo. "The moon drowns this place twice a day. The skin of your mind mildews."

Jess suffers from traumatic stress disorder and perhaps something more serious, more permanent. She has an escalating alcohol and drug addiction. Sometimes her rants sound poetic; sometimes they're simply disjointed. Both real and imagined social workers are trying to help the family, and she sees that as interference rather than aid.

The whole family yearns for stable, loving relationships. Bo tries to find one with a classmate at school. Tom tries to find one with Toby, believing she is full of deep secret thoughts. Toby is flotsam in this restless sea.

Simpson creates believable characters, and allows them to narrate. For instance, Tom has the first three chapters. Then we hear from Jess for three. Then Tom reappears. We learn how Jess's brother died in Vietnam, how her mother is known as Crazy Beckah. We learn about picking wild cranberries and the color of muskeg in fall. There are wonderful descriptions of Jess's youthful memories of seeing humpback whales off shore: "We'd go to sleep hearing the forced sigh of their breath like wave over rock, or we'd go out in the skiff, and suddenly those barnacled jaws would rise like the pipe wrench of God. They'd roll up alongside us and their ancient eyes asked questions, gathering verse for their songs."

It would be a shame to give away the plot for those who will read this novel. It stretches credibility a little, which Simpson knows when she has Bo think, "I mean, how many ten-year-old kids have to rescue their crazy mother?" Suffice to say that this is an engaging story, if dark as midnight in December. The immediate predicaments of the family are solved. But one wonders what will happen to the members of this quartet next.

"Rogue's Yarn" is a horrifying tale of what substance abuse can do intergenerationally. It shows with devastating accuracy how "contrary" substance abuse is to parenting, to civilization. Unfortunately, it makes it seem that substance abuse happens only in small, rainy Alaskan towns.

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