"This book is a fine one to read when you feel yourself wondering what would happen if you chucked it all, took off, went north to someplace where you’d have to deal with the loud sound of your own heart.”
Survival: Stories is Nancy Lord’s second collection of short stories, many of which were written while Lord was enrolled in Vermont College’s MFA writing program. The collection was the second-place finalist in the 1986 AWP (Associated Writing Programs) short fiction contest and a finalist in the 1988 Flannery O’Connor short fiction contest.
Alaska is the overarching character that dominates this impressive collection. Our largest, coldest most remote, and most pristine state “looms as a presence that variously is vast and claustrophobic, dangerous and freeing, exhilarating and depressing,” according to a Google review. All of the characters are in varied ways attempting to endure the challenges of living in Alaska. Some survive while others do not.
"I need to be here."
Even as a little girl in Boston, I was looking for this. The day I learned about the Westward Movement—settlers trundling along in covered wagons, as it was presented—I raced around after school, dunk with the concept of first steps into unknown territory, stamping my feel into any unblemished patch of snow, shouting, “Pioneer! Pioneer! Pioneer!”
When I came to Alaska, it was with the sure knowledge that here were places that, truly, no one had stepped. And it mattered, the sense of putting a foot down and knowing I was the first to look upon the world from exactly that vantage point. Every night—of mountain or mouse hole—was a discovery. (p. 113)
The idealistic and somewhat naïve newcomer in the title story explains her migration to Alaska to the narrator, her co-worker, when she first arrives: “I need to be here,” Bonnie confesses. “I need to be somewhere that hasn’t been paved over yet…” (p. 5), a place where nothing is easy but everything seems necessary. (p.10). The narrator futile hopes that Bonnie’s “purity of vision” will sustain her through the inevitable challenges of Alaskan survival. (p.6)
The protagonist of “Marks” who migrated to Alaska with a friend who was later murdered thinks back without regret for what has happened, “Anyone could live comfortably in a settled place—but what kind of life was that for the two of them? Neither of them had fled the safe, well-traveled streets of their hometown just to shy away from what they found in this new and boundless land.” (p.44)
The female dog musher in ”The Lady with the Sled Dog” describes trekking over the frozen landscape as a kind of religious experience:
And they you’ve got the country, as big and empty as anywhere in the world. At night, when the mountains are lit by the moon and stars, and it’s about thirty degrees below normal and maybe a few northern lights are twisting away in the sky….it gets you right here. (p. 50)
Although many people have felt the lure of Alaska and taken the risk to try to survive there, one of the characters in “Snowblind” explains that Alaskan’s importance extends even to those who have never set foot in the state. “Some of us need Alaska, even if it’s only in our minds,” Eric says. “You know, even if we’re not there, we need Alaska to be there.” (p. 145)
"Another Kind of Life"
This is the life, ain’t it? It’s a sin a person can have it so good, walkin’ around in the woods all day long, just listenin’ and lookin’ at God’s earth the way he made it, not all messed up the way it is everywhere else.” (p. 99)
Winter is so cold in Alaska “it’s as though sound itself is frozen.” Ben’s father loves the peaceful quietness. “It’s kind of life everything stops,” he tells Ben. (p. 101) But winter finds Ben’s mother hibernating under the covers, deep in depression. Unable get out of bed, she tells Ben her dream: “‘It was sunny. I was eating something like pineapple. The juice was trickling down my chin, making me sticky. I think it was Hawaii.’” (pp. 103-104) While she sleeps, Ben entertains himself by looking at magazines but notices all the women are smiling, which his mother rarely does.
Similarly, the divorced father in “Nature’s Lessons” is in his awe of the beauty of Alaska. “It was so wild—all the mountains and gorges, forests and brush, rivers foaming, waterfalls cascading into pools.” (p. 112) But his ten-year-old daughter visiting from Los Angeles doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the wild where the bathroom is outdoors and you can’t hop in your car and head to the grocery story anytime you want like “regular people” do. “This is another kind of life,” he explains, “where we do things for ourselves.” (p. 116)
Although she hikes, fishes, pulls weeds, and picks berries with her father without complaint, Mary reminds her father of a prisoner or hospital patient “who did the best they could while waiting for their day of release” (p. 120) As she and her father munch on homemade pizza made with moosemeat one evening, Mary lists all the foods she can’t wait to eat when she gets back into "civilization" and makes her father promise to buy her a double scoop ice cream cone.
They say she must have been crazy.
Suicidal, they say.
They shake their heads, in sadness and in wonder. (p. 1)
“She” is the most recent cannery worker to join the fish processing line. Bonnie reminds the narrator of herself 18 years ago when she migrated from Minnesota to Alaska, guided by a “purity of vision” similar to Bonnie’s. Now she laments the fact that she has gradually lost the idealism that led her to the last frontier. “At her age,” she remembers, “I’d been so full of dreams. Alaska, the summer I discovered it, was all I wanted it to be: a land of light and flowers and adventure. I was going to climb every mountain, pick berries beside every bear, raft every river, drink whiskey with every old sourdough. It was like being in love; everything was possible.” (p. 4)
But gradually over time, the narrator admits, “the part of me that had been so ready for adventure, so accepting of hardship, so enthralled with what was new and simple and natural had become less read, less accepting, less enthralled. It hadn’t been anything specific, any event that had changed me. It had just happened, a process, the same sort of dimming adjustment my eyes had made to the glaciers’ blue ice after I’d seen it enough times.” (p.22)
So when Bonnie’s dream to live in an island wilderness alone to “be a part of nature” ends in her failure to survive the first winter in her adopted homeland, the narrator feels grief at the loss of a young life and guilt that perhaps she could have done more to alter Bonnie’s unrealistic expectations of living off the land in such an unforgiving place. But the overriding and unanticipated feeling she confesses at the end of the story is one of regret that during her 18 years in Alaska she was not more of an romantic risk taker, like Bonnie. The narrator admits that “in my life, when I might have sought more, I settled, increasing, for what was safer, and less.” (p. 22) In mourning for Bonnie, she realizes the heavy price she has paid for her own survival.