Having spent a week last summer sea kayaking along the coast of northern British Columbia, I was looking forward to Ivan Doig’s The Sea Runners. Doig is a regional writer best known for his books about Montana, notably his novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair and a memoir of ranching life, The House of Sky.
The Sea Runners, published in 1982, is an early work that builds on a footnote of history. (Doig earned a Ph.D. in history before turning to novel-writing.) It is the story of four indentured Swedes who escaped New Archangel (Russia’s settlement where Sitka, Alaska sits today) by paddling a canoe to Astoria, Oregon in the winter and spring of 1853.
Doig’s historical research of Russian America shows. He provides a vivid description of the bleakness of New Archangel as he develops the back-story of the four men: how they got there, why they so desperately wanted to leave and how they planned their escape.
The last three-quarters of the novel deal with the arduous journey down the coast and the men’s struggles to work as a team. The descriptions of the journey are nautically and geographically accurate; you get the sense that Doig sailed along that rugged coast before embarking on his writing. But missing for me were the details that create verisimilitude, those bits of first-hand experience that persuade the reader to suspend disbelief.
For example, Doig tells how the men preserved venison by boiling it in saltwater, but he fails to describe the taste of it after weeks of soggy travel. He describes the rocky islands of the Inside Passage but omits any mention of the abundant sea life at tide line. He captures the frustration of paddling against high seas and headwinds but provides little detail of the natural world, such as the frantic flapping of seabirds over schools of fish or the yelp of sea otter pups left by their mothers tethered to beds of kelp. The Swedes would surely have noted such things, just as they would have felt the chill and chafing of wet woolens, the effects of scurvy after weeks of bad diet, and the sores and aches from paddling a heavy cedar canoe for hours, days, weeks on end—all things Doig largely disregards.
Like South, Ernest Shackleton’s superb memoir of his failed expedition to the South Pole, or Alive, Piers Paul Read’s riveting account of the air-crash survivors in the Andes, this should have been a story of survival and extreme physical endurance. Instead, Doig concentrates on the differences between the four men, their petty bickering and clashes as they vie for leadership.
In what for me was the weakest aspect of the novel, Doig chose, perhaps for color, to write in an oblique, almost archaic style which impedes the narrative. Here’s an example:
What brought down Melander’s decision in favor of Karlsson, however, was a feather of instant remembered from shipboard. Karlsson had been borne to Alaska on the same schooner as Melander, and Melander recalled that just before sailing when others of the indentured group, the torsion of their journey-to-come tremendous in them at the moment, were talking large of the bright success ahead, what adventure the frontier life would furnish and how swiftly and with what staggering profit their seven years of contract with the Russians would pass, Karlsson had listened, given a small mirthless smile and a single shake of his head, and moved off along the deck by himself.
One further impression of the slender man’s interesting constancy also was stored away in Melander. The observation that Karlsson visited more often to the women in the native village than did any of the merchants of wind who perpetually bragged in the barracks about their lust. Or as Melander mused it to himself, the mermaids had hold of Karlsson’s towrope but he didn’t go around yipping the news.
Doig’s stylistic decision extends to dialogue as well. He may have intended to convey the idiomatic speech of the Swedes, but it comes off sounding like a bad pirate imitation:
“Wennberg, Wennberg. Always ready to bone the guff out of me, aye? Tell me a thing, how do we come by this honor of having you in our crew? What sugar was it that kept you on at New Archangel past your years?”
Wennberg studied the tall leader. Then he spat to one side and muttered, “Serving for Rachel.”
Melander tugged an ear. “Lend us that again?”
The prose is all too overwrought, as if colorful language might cover up a lack of detail from the historical record or first-hand experience. It’s a common problem with historical fiction, as Henry James noted long ago. The result is a story that would have been better served if it had been more plainly told.