Meet somebody new at a bar or a party or a coffee shop and, if they weren't born in Alaska, inevitably the conversation turns to "How did you come up here?" It's what John McPhee calls the "coming into the country" story, the title of his classic book on Alaska.
In her "Tide, Feather, Snow," released April 28 by HarperCollins, Homer author Miranda Weiss writes that story.
"It's a contemporary story of moving to Alaska," she said. "Most people who live here weren't born here. Most everyone has a story of how they came here and why they stayed, and this is mine."
Weiss, 33, grew up in suburban Maryland in the Beltway area around Washington, D.C. Alaska had held a lure for her since childhood. In fifth grade she wrote a school report imagining that she lived in Alaska.
"I really like it here. Most of my friends are Eskimos and I have learned to speak Aleut," she wrote as a child. "I am going to school here and I am not sure what will lie ahead of me in the secret and mystical land of Alaska."
Weiss is a graduate of Brown University with a bachelor of science degree in biology. After college she lived for about a year in Portland and Tillamook, Ore., working for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Following that childhood vision, she moved to Homer in the fall of 1999 to join a boyfriend, then left Alaska in 2003 to work on a master of fine arts degree in writing at Columbia University before returning to Homer in 2006.
The first chapter of "Tide, Feather, Snow" came out of a writing class with Eva Saulitis at Kachemak Bay campus. About two-thirds of the book she wrote for her MFA thesis. The memoir concerns Weiss' first few years in Homer, although she's deliberately vague about when in her life the events happened. Anyone who knows Kachemak Bay will recognize Homer right off, but Weiss keeps the location obscure in the first chapter and doesn't name Homer until the second chapter.
"When I was writing it, it wasn't that important right at the beginning," Weiss said. "I just wanted to take people somewhere. I can't exactly explain why I didn't put it right in front. It really felt right to me."
Many people familiar in Homer get mentioned in her book, but except for a few close friends, Weiss uses pseudonyms, including the man she calls John, her boyfriend at the time.
"There's this fuzziness, but at the same time I really wanted all of the facts to be right," Weiss said. "That was really important to me. All the natural historical stuff, the historical stuff - it was really important to me that these things be accurate."
Each chapter of "Tide, Feather, Snow" begins with a nautical word and a definition. That technique expresses an undercurrent to her memoir: Weiss' self-deprecating ignorance of much that people in a coastal town take for granted.
"I was surrounded by people who boasted local know-how and carried around the knowledge of fish, tides, boats and weather as ballast," she writes. "This was how people navigated the place, and how they possessed it. And from the moment I arrived, gaining this knowledge seemed the only way to feel like I belonged."
It's an ignorance that's the opposite of McPhee, Weiss said.
"He goes in knowing everything already," she said. "He doesn't transform, and I guess my story is of somebody in a place who is transformed."
McPhee knows that language, Weiss said.
"My book is about coming into a place and not knowing the language, and what that feels like," she said.
To overcome her ignorance, Weiss dives completely into the Homer experience. She catches fish by personal use setnet and dipnet. She builds her own kayak and paddles across Kachemak Bay in worsening weather. She skis blissfully in the hills. She learns the natural history of the bay, how to identify birds, fish, trees and sea life - and how to live off the land.
"I learned that there were two ways you could live here: the particular way of life this place afforded or the way you could live anywhere else," she writes. "For John and me, it seemed important to live in the unique way we could here."
Learning to live that way, and how she did that, forms the backbone of "Tide, Feather, Snow."
Weiss' book has already gained some critical attention. In an early review, Publisher's Weekly called it a "deeply honest memoir." Author Edward Hoagland described it as "a lovely, feathery book indeed - a labor of love and a pleasure to read." Lynne Cox, author of "Swimming to Antarctica," said "'Tide, Feather, Snow' is beautifully poetic, her observations are expansive and the pace and rhythm in which she writes are perfect."
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michaelarmstrong.@homernews.com.