Alexis M. Smith spent her early years in remote Soldotna, Alaska. But even after moving to Seattle in sixth grade, and living for more than a decade in Portland, images of her secluded childhood permeate her stories and dreams. Much of her personal biography is true of Isabel, the main character in Smith’s debut novel Glaciers.
Glaciers follows Isabel through the course of one day in Portland. Weaving between the past and present, the novel explores recurring dreams of roaming through thrift stores, working with damaged books in the basement of the library, unrequited love and vanishing landscapes of her Alaskan childhood.
Smith explained to Think Out Loud‘s David Miller how memory influenced Glaciers’ kaleidoscopic use of time and place. “I’ve always been interested in how memory works and how objects we have in our lives — smells, an image, a color — can immediately bring you back to a place or time or moment.”
As Glaciers grew from an MFA thesis into its final form years later, Smith’s life also changed. She gave birth to her son in the middle of the writing process, which changed her priorities in life and the focus of the novel.
“There was so much of this navel gazing in the early versions (of the book), and sort of twentysomething depression, where not being able to confess your love to someone is the hardest thing in the world. After giving birth, I’m sorry, it’s just not that hard anymore.”
Glaciers took on a lighter a tone, Smith admits. “I really had a different perspective on the book. I couldn’t go back and write that same story…it became more joyous and life affirming.”
Listen to Think Out Loud’s full interview with Alexis M. Smith.
Excerpt: Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith
Years later, in Portland, their father began to tell them his stories. They trickled out of him, as if his past were slowly melting: the early days of long winters snowed in at the homestead; his father shooting the first moose to wander down the driveway in the fall; moose sandwiches for months; working summers as a teenager, cleaning trash and outhouses in camp grounds (banging a big aluminum spoon against the garbage pails to frighten off bears); leaving home at sixteen to play music with feckless friends; his father getting their band a gig at a bar (brothel) in Kenai, not asking how his father knew the owner (Madam); searching piles of fish heads for a human hand his last summer at the cannery; the fishing boat he sank all his money into; the friend who sank the boat; and eventually, working on the North Slope.
There were only two places to work, he said: the canneries or the Slope. He had worked both. It was an explanation and an apology. Though for what, Isabel still wasn’t sure. He always seemed to be flying away from them when they were little girls. Isabel thought that he believed this was the reason their mother stopped loving him. That was an easy explanation, but the apology was more complicated.
There was the pipeline and the oil that thrummed through it. There was evidence of harm all around—as close as the end of his arm. Beyond: there was the spill that coated the sea and the coastline and all the animals there. Then there was the thaw, the threatening deep, vast thaw: a lucid dream of legacy for children who know better but cannot stop it.
Isabel cannot read magazine articles or books about the North. She cannot watch the nature programs about the migrations of birds and mammals dwindling, the sea ice thinning, and the erosion of islands. And she does not want to know what has happened to her great-grandmother’s house by the woods, sold years ago to people who let gutted cars rot in the front yard.
When she thinks about her northern childhood now, she thinks of her father, flying to the Slope with all the other fathers, toiling over the permafrost. She sees him in his work coat and heavy boots, hardhat over a woolen skullcap, slipping coins into the slot of a vending machine, pressing the button and hearing the clink and the drop, reaching his undamaged left hand through the metal flap for the candy bar.