Cover image for The seal wife : a novel
Title:
The seal wife : a novel
Author:
Harrison, Kathryn.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2002]

©2002
Physical Description:
224 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780375506291
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Stunning, hypnotic, spare, The Seal Wife is the masterly new novel by Kathryn Harrison, "a writer of extraordinary gifts" (Tobias Wolff). Set in Alaska in 1915, it tells the story of a young scientist's consuming love for a woman known as the Aleut, a woman who never speaks, who refuses to reveal so much as her name. Born and educated in midwestern cities, Bigelow is sent north by the United States government to establish a weather observatory in Anchorage. But what could have prepared him for the loneliness of a railroad town with more than two thousand men and only a handful of women, or for winter nights twenty hours long? And what can protect him from obsession--obsession with a woman who seems in her silence and mystery to possess the power to destroy his life forever, and obsession with the weather kite he invents, a kite he hopes will fly higher than any has ever flown before and will penetrate the secrets of the heavens? A novel of passions both dangerous and generative, The Seal Wife explores the nature of desire and its ability to propel an individual beyond himself and convention. As she brilliantly reimagines the terrain of the Alaskan frontier during the period of the First World War, Harrison, a "master of her material" (Mary Gordon), also evokes early efforts to chart the weather and reveals the interior realm of the psyche and emotions--a human landscape that, in its splendor and terror, is profoundly and eerily reminiscent of the frozen frontier and the storms that scour its face.


Author Notes

Kathryn Harrison lives in New York with her husband and their children.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Chimerical and probing, Harrison creates utterly different realms in each of her acute, highly stylized novels, yet all chart the course of obsessive desire. More concentrated and dreamier than its predecessors, including The Binding Chair (2000), her fifth novel takes place in 1915. Bigelow, a handsome and intrepid 26-year-old meteorologist, moves to Anchorage, Alaska, to establish a weather station. Suffering from the cold, extremes of dark and light, and cultural deprivation, he fusses diligently with his instruments, maps, and logbooks, and builds an enormous kite, which he hopes will help him prove a theory about polar air. Uncomfortable with the hardscrabble town's macho men, he falls hard for a mysterious Aleut woman who never speaks or shows any emotion, even during sex. Then she disappears. Devastated, desperately lonely, and sexually starved, Bigelow gets entangled in a bizarre situation with yet another silent woman. Harrison writes with a curiously voluptuous efficiency as she gives rein to her endearingly hapless hero's feverish mind, and explores the brutal dynamics of a frontier town where the ambitions of outsiders collide with indigenous wisdom. Painterly in its pearlescent evocation of the Alaskan landscape, steeped in myth and the magic of science, this is a delectably moody, erotic, and provocative cross-cultural love story. Donna Seaman


Publisher's Weekly Review

Obsessions are Harrison's forte (The Binding Chair, etc.) and here she plumbs the mind of a young man deprived of companions, diversions and even the basic amenities of civilization who develops a passion for a woman whose very remoteness feeds his desire. In 1915, 26-year-old Bigelow Greene is sent to establish a U.S. weather station in Anchorage, a primitive settlement where the sled dogs howl all night in the 20-hour-long winter darkness. Bigelow is asingle-minded man; he first becomes obsessed with the idea of building a huge kite to measure air temperature high in the atmosphere and thus enable long-range forecasting. But he's soon smitten with a woman the locals call the Aleut. She's mysterious, enigmatic, virtually mute sex between she and Bigelow is wordless and when he discovers that she's left Anchorage, Bigelow almost goes mad with longing. Eventually, he succumbs to the lure of another woman, Miriam Getz, the daughter of the storekeeper. She, too, is mute by choice, and she proves to be a demon, the very opposite of the self-contained Aleut. Bigelow is caught in her trap. As Harrison describes the black loneliness of winter and the mosquito-infested summer days, the mood grows darker and more suspenseful, emblematic of Bigelow's desolate psyche. In perfect control of the spare narrative, Harrison writes mesmerizing, cinematically vivid scenes: Native American laborers fascinated by Caruso recordings; the gigantic kite nearly dragging Bigelow to his death off a cliff and, later, soaring into the turbulent sky of a rousing storm. Given these ominous events, and for those who know the Celtic legend of the seal wife, the ending is all the more surprising. Author tour. (May) Forecast: Harrison's excellently assimilated research about the early days of weather forecasting and about the conditions in Alaska during WWI add credibility to a novel about the inner landscape of desire. This double appeal should spark good sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Sent to frigid Alaska in the early 1900s to establish a weather observatory, a man finds hot passion as well. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

HE IS TWENTY-SIX, and for as long as he's lived in the north there has been only the Aleut woman. Several evenings a week he comes to her door with a duck or a rabbit and she asks him in. Not asks, exactly. She opens the door and steps aside so he can enter. She lives in a frame house hammered together fast out of boards and tar paper, a house like all the others in Anchorage, except it isn't on First or Fourth or even Ninth Street; instead it is off to the east, marooned on the mud flats. But she has things in it, like anyone else, a table and two chairs, flour and tea on a shelf, a hat hanging from a peg. She wears a dress with buttons and she cooks at a stove, and the two of them eat before, and then after she sits cross-legged in the tub and smokes her pipe. She smokes, and he watches her smoke. He thinks her mouth may be the most beautiful part of her--not red, not brown or mauve or pink, but a color for which he has no name. Her top lip is finely drawn, almost stern; the bottom one is plump, with a crease in the center. On another face its fullness might be considered a pout, but her black eyes convey none of the disappointment, nor the invitation, of such an expression. She is the only woman who has allowed him to watch her as intently, as much and as long, as he wants, and the reason for this comes to him one night. She is self-possessed. There is nothing he can take from her by looking. At the thought, he gets up from the bed and goes to the window, he rests his forehead on its cold pane. She possesses herself. How much more this makes him want her! Then, one day, it's over: she won't open her door to him. He knocks, he rattles the knob. "Please," he says, his mouth against the crack. "Open up. It's me." With his hands cupped around his eyes, he peers through the window and there she is, sitting at the table, staring at the wall. He knocks on the glass and holds up his rabbit, but she doesn't turn her head. Even after he's walked the entire peri- meter of the two-room house, hitting the boards with the heel of his hand, even after that, when he looks in the window, he sees her still sitting there, not moving. He leaves his dead rabbit on the ground and goes back the way he came, trudging past the railroad yard and the new bunkhouse, the sawmill with its chained curs lunging and snapping after his shadow. What. He thinks the word over and over. There must be some explanation. But what? It's June, eleven o'clock at night and bright as morning. The usually gray water of the inlet is purple, gold where the light touches it, a low skein of cirrus unraveling on the horizon. Beyond the trampled mud of the streets are wildflowers growing everywhere, flowers of all colors, red fireweed, yellow broom, blue aster. He picks them as he walks. Preoccupied, he yanks at them, and some come up roots and all. After smelling their bright heads, he drops them, and by the time he retraces his path their petals have withered. Has he done something to offend her? In his mind he reviews his last visit with the woman. He brought her a duck, a good-size one, and a bolt of netting to protect her bed. Surely there was nothing wrong in that. He can't stand being bitten by mosquitoes, and he hates for the two of them to have to leave their clothing on. Every hour he's not with her is one spent waiting to see her, the more of her the better. She has the sloping shoulders characteristic of her people; breasts that are small and pointed, like two halves of a yam set side by side; three black lines tattooed on her chin; and smooth, bowed legs. She, he calls her to himself, because he hasn't presumed to name her, not even privately. Her hair is long and black, a mare's tail, and once, when he began to unbraid it, she took it from his hands. By some accident of biology her navel turned out a perfect spiral, and he's fought off her hands to kiss her in that place. Her body seems young to him, as young as his own, as strong and unmarked. But her eyes make him wonder. There's no point in asking her age, because she doesn't understand English, nor any of the pidgin phrases he's taught himself and tried to say. Or perhaps she does know the meaning of his words but is unwilling to betray her knowledge--herself--to him. Whether she understood him or not, the woman's silence did not stop him from talking; it provoked him, and he spoke more volubly to her than he had to anyone else, more than he might to a person who answered. His father was dead, he told her, and his mother and sister ran a boardinghouse in St. Louis. He'd lived in three cities so far: St. Louis, where he was born; Chicago, where he attended the university and earned a degree in mathematics; and Seattle, where he worked for two years as an observer for the Weather Bureau. Well, Seattle wasn't much of a city, he guessed, shaking his head. But compared to Anchorage. When he talked she stopped what she was doing and watched him, and sometimes he could see himself, reflected on the wet surface of her eyes, and forgot what he had been saying. Oh, yes, he'd come north for the government land auction and he'd built the weather station from the same green lumber from which her house was made. But while she had only one window, he had windows all around. If she'd come outside with him, come with him to his station house, she'd see that the panes were six feet wide and as thick as this. To illustrate, he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. But the woman, who allowed him to enter whenever he pleased, would not follow him so much as a foot beyond her door, and so they never walked together, never even stepped outside to watch the birds fly overhead. Because it is his vocation, he often spoke to her of weather and its measurement. He is building a kite, a box kite as big as her bedroom, and to show her he paced off its dimensions. It will go up for miles and tell him what he can't determine from instruments on the ground. There are tornadoes in Missouri, he told her, his finger stirring the air before her face, and he told her that as a child he walked through fields sown with shards of his grandmother's plates. A storm took and emptied her cupboards, carried off spoons and bowls and jars of peaches, and spun them over rivers and across roads, clear into the next county. "What do you think of that?" he said. In Alaska, he'd traveled as far north as Talkeetna; he went with a trapper who accepted ten silver dollars to serve as his guide. The journey inland took three weeks, but coming back the wind picked up, and the trapper stuck a sail on his sled. They whistled down the frozen river, his ears singing with cold inside his parka hood, and he tried to keep his eyes open, because what he saw was not like anything he'd seen before: pink snow and blue forest, the kind of thing you expect in a dream but not while awake. "Bigelow," he said, pointing to himself, clapping his hand on his chest, but he couldn't get her to repeat his name. "Promise me something," he said. They were sitting side by side on her bed, dressed only in their boots, and when he stroked her knee, she looked down at his hand. In his mind, Bigelow ran through women--girls--he'd known. Karen, to whom he'd written a letter each day; Molly, very pretty, often looking past him to find her own reflection; Rachel, too tall, but it hadn't really mattered; Anne, reading a novel. They seemed even farther from him than the cities where they lived, and it was the attempt to conjure their faces that measured this distance. How tiny they were, like well-wishers waving from a shrinking dock. Five days to sail north from Seattle. Bigelow disembarked in Anchorage, and by the time he'd thought to turn himself around and look back toward the ship that had brought him, it was gone. Anchorage--a place for ships to pause, to drop anchor for only as long as it might take to disgorge freight and passengers. To fill their holds with otter, mink, and sable, skins so fresh they still bled, packed in salt to keep them from spoiling. "Promise me there's no one else." This time he whispered the words, and the woman looked at him. She frowned and she put her fingers to her lips. The knuckles were so smooth, so sleek, that he wondered if northern people weren't, like the animals, insulated against the cold by a layer of yellow, silky fat. .  .  . October November December. January February March. April May. Half of June. Long enough for him to begin to take it for granted: he would knock, she would open. Whatever else occupies him, Bigelow's thoughts return to the Aleut woman. He imagines their reunion, his passionate reentry into her house, into her arms, her body. But these fantasies don't get as far as the bed, the bed piled with skins. They're interrupted by the picture he has of her, sitting, staring, her hands folded in her lap, her thick black braid hanging over one shoulder. Panicked--what's to become of him, what will he do? what will he do if she continues to refuse to see him?--he forces himself to let a day pass, and then another. He makes himself wait for what seems to him a long time, enough time for a woman to recover from whatever has upset her. Then he returns to her door. But he finds it unlocked and inside her house nothing, just a pale spot on the floorboards where her bed used to be, and another under the missing stove. In one corner is his gramophone and, stacked neatly in their glassine envelopes, the Caruso and Tetrazzini recordings that he cranked the handle to play for her. He walks around her two rooms. He runs his fingers along the walls until he comes to the place where she tacked up an illustrated advertisement for corsets, the fourteen styles available from the American Corset Company in Dayton, Ohio. Why she put it up or what she thought of it he cannot guess. He stares at the advertisement, touches it, mouthing the names of the styles--Delineator, Posture Fix, Widow-Maker. He turns and with his back against the wall, he slides down, staring from one empty room into the other. He starts to cry, stops himself when he hears the choked noise he is making in the silence of her house. So small, so inadequate for the grief he feels. Excerpted from The Seal Wife: A Novel by Kathryn Harrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

He Is Twenty-Six, and for as long as he's lived in the north there has been only the Aleut woman. Several evenings a week he comes to her door with a duck or a rabbit and she asks him in. Not asks, exactly. She opens the door and steps aside so he can enter.
She lives in a frame house hammered together fast out of boards and tar paper, a house like all the others in Anchorage, except it isn't on First or Fourth or even Ninth Street; instead it is off to the east, marooned on the mud flats. But she has things in it, like anyone else, a table and two chairs, flour and tea on a shelf, a hat hanging from a peg. She wears a dress with buttons and she cooks at a stove, and the two of them eat before, and then after she sits cross-legged in the tub and smokes her pipe.
She smokes, and he watches her smoke. He thinks her mouth may be the most beautiful part of her-not red, not brown or mauve or pink, but a color for which he has no name. Her top lip is finely drawn, almost stern; the bottom one is plump, with a crease in the center. On another face its fullness might be considered a pout, but her black eyes convey none of the disappointment, nor the invitation, of such an expression.
She is the only woman who has allowed him to watch her as intently, as much and as long, as he wants, and the reason for this comes to him one night. She is self-possessed. There is nothing he can take from her by looking.
At the thought, he gets up from the bed and goes to the window, he rests his forehead on its cold pane. She possesses herself. How much more this makes him want her! Then, one day, it's over: she won't open her door to him.
He knocks, he rattles the knob. "Please," he says, his mouth against the crack. "Open up. It's me." With his hands cupped around his eyes, he peers through the window and there she is, sitting at the table, staring at the wall.
He knocks on the glass and holds up his rabbit, but she doesn't turn her head. Even after he's walked the entire peri- meter of the two-room house, hitting the boards with the heel of his hand, even after that, when he looks in the window, he sees her still sitting there, not moving. He leaves his dead rabbit on the ground and goes back the way he came, trudging past the railroad yard and the new bunkhouse, the sawmill with its chained curs lunging and snapping after his shadow. What. He thinks the word over and over. There must be some explanation. But what? It's June, eleven o'clock at night and bright as morning. The usually gray water of the inlet is purple, gold where the light touches it, a low skein of cirrus unraveling on the horizon. Beyond the trampled mud of the streets are wildflowers growing everywhere, flowers of all colors, red fireweed, yellow broom, blue aster. He picks them as he walks. Preoccupied, he yanks at them, and some come up roots and all. After smelling their bright heads, he drops them, and by the time he retraces his path their petals have withered.
Has he done something to offend her? In his mind he reviews his last visit with the woman. He brought her a duck, a good-size one, and a bolt of netting to protect her bed. Surely there was nothing wrong in that. He can't stand being bitten by mosquitoes, and he hates for the two of them to have to leave their clothing on. Every hour he's not with her is one spent waiting to see her, the more of her the better. She has the sloping shoulders characteristic of her people; breasts that are small and pointed, like two halves of a yam set side by side; three black lines tattooed on her chin; and smooth, bowed legs. She, he calls her to himself, because he hasn't presumed to name her, not even privately. Her hair is long and black, a mare's tail, and once, when he began to unbraid it, she took it from his hands. By some accident of biology her navel turned out a perfect spiral, and he's fought off her hands to kiss her in that place.
Her body seems young to him, as young as his own, as strong and unmarked. But her eyes make him wonder.
There's no point in asking her age, because she doesn't understand English, nor any of the pidgin phrases he's taught himself and tried to say.
Or perhaps she does know the meaning of his words but is unwilling to betray her knowledge-herself-to him.
Whether she understood him or not, the woman's silence did not stop him from talking; it provoked him, and he spoke more volubly to her than he had to anyone else, more than he might to a person who answered. His father was dead, he told her, and his mother and sister ran a boardinghouse in St. Louis. He'd lived in three cities so far: St. Louis, where he was born; Chicago, where he attended the university and earned a degree in mathematics; and Seattle, where he worked for two years as an observer for the Weather Bureau. Well, Seattle wasn't much of a city, he guessed, shaking his head. But compared to Anchorage.
When he talked she stopped what she was doing and watched him, and sometimes he could see himself, reflected on the wet surface of her eyes, and forgot what he had been saying. Oh, yes, he'd come north for the government land auction and he'd built the weather station from the same green lumber from which her house was made. But while she had only one window, he had windows all around. If she'd come outside with him, come with him to his station house, she'd see that the panes were six feet wide and as thick as this. To illustrate, he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. But the woman, who allowed him to enter whenever he pleased, would not follow him so much as a foot beyond her door, and so they never walked together, never even stepped outside to watch the birds fly overhead.
Because it is his vocation, he often spoke to her of weather and its measurement. He is building a kite, a box kite as big as her bedroom, and to show her he paced off its dimensions. It will go up for miles and tell him what he can't determine from instruments on the ground.
There are tornadoes in Missouri, he told her, his finger stirring the air before her face, and he told her that as a child he walked through fields sown with shards of his grandmother's plates. A storm took and emptied her cupboards, carried off spoons and bowls and jars of peaches, and spun them over rivers and across roads, clear into the next county. "What do you think of that?" he said.
In Alaska, he'd traveled as far north as Talkeetna; he went with a trapper who accepted ten silver dollars to serve as his guide. The journey inland took three weeks, but coming back the wind picked up, and the trapper stuck a sail on his sled. They whistled down the frozen river, his ears singing with cold inside his parka hood, and he tried to keep his eyes open, because what he saw was not like anything he'd seen before: pink snow and blue forest, the kind of thing you expect in a dream but not while awake.
"Bigelow," he said, pointing to himself, clapping his hand on his chest, but he couldn't get her to repeat his name.
"Promise me something," he said. They were sitting side by side on her bed, dressed only in their boots, and when he stroked her knee, she looked down at his hand. In his mind, Bigelow ran through women-girls-he'd known. Karen, to whom he'd written a letter each day; Molly, very pretty, often looking past him to find her own reflection; Rachel, too tall, but it hadn't really mattered; Anne, reading a novel. They seemed even farther from him than the cities where they lived, and it was the attempt to conjure their faces that measured this distance. How tiny they were, like well-wishers waving from a shrinking dock.
Five days to sail north from Seattle. Bigelow disembarked in Anchorage, and by the time he'd thought to turn himself around and look back toward the ship that had brought him, it was gone. Anchorage-a place for ships to pause, to drop anchor for only as long as it might take to disgorge freight and passengers. To fill their holds with otter, mink, and sable, skins so fresh they still bled, packed in salt to keep them from spoiling.
"Promise me there's no one else." This time he whispered the words, and the woman looked at him. She frowned and she put her fingers to her lips. The knuckles were so smooth, so sleek, that he wondered if northern people weren't, like the animals, insulated against the cold by a layer of yellow, silky fat.... October November December. January February March. April May. Half of June. Long enough for him to begin to take it for granted: he would knock, she would open.
Whatever else occupies him, Bigelow's thoughts return to the Aleut woman. He imagines their reunion, his passionate reentry into her house, into her arms, her body. But these fantasies don't get as far as the bed, the bed piled with skins. They're interrupted by the picture he has of her, sitting, staring, her hands folded in her lap, her thick black braid hanging over one shoulder.
Panicked-what's to become of him, what will he do? what will he do if she continues to refuse to see him?-he forces himself to let a day pass, and then another. He makes himself wait for what seems to him a long time, enough time for a woman to recover from whatever has upset her. Then he returns to her door.
But he finds it unlocked and inside her house nothing, just a pale spot on the floorboards where her bed used to be, and another under the missing stove. In one corner is his gramophone and, stacked neatly in their glassine envelopes, the Caruso and Tetrazzini recordings that he cranked the handle to play for her.
He walks around her two rooms. He runs his fingers along the walls until he comes to the place where she tacked up an illustrated advertisement for corsets, the fourteen styles available from the American Corset Company in Dayton, Ohio. Why she put it up or what she thought of it he cannot guess.
He stares at the advertisement, touches it, mouthing the names of the styles-Delineator, Posture Fix, Widow-Maker. He turns and with his back against the wall, he slides down, staring from one empty room into the other. He starts to cry, stops himself when he hears the choked noise he is making in the silence of her house. So small, so inadequate for the grief he feels.
From the Hardcover edition.

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