The Devil’s Share, Kris Farmen, McRoy & Blackburn Publishers, 2010
“Jack, she scolded, you take that old-time stuff way too seriously. Those days are long gone.”
So laments Jack’s mother after he’s ditched school, yet again, to explore the woods outside his family’s home in a small Alaskan town. Jack seems genetically disposed to adventure as his parents had homesteaded in the Wrangell Mountains before his birth. Now they were living in town, working regular jobs, because the Federal government and the Parks Service had moved residents out of the hills to create protected wild lands. Now, with college pending, Jack’s eager to hold off and spend a year back in those same mountains as a guide for a family friend who caters to the scientists and tourists who fly in to study the native plants or hunt.
Thus begins his quest, one that introduces him to an entirely different world that is hidden in the scenic vistas of snow-capped mountains and icy streams. His new boss flies him into the interior of the Yukon to his lodge, and Jack easily adapts to difficult work with the camp horses and maintaining the cabins. He learns to guide, track, and especially to get by on very few material comforts. To say he’s found his niche is an understatement. But it doesn’t last long, and a very different set of circumstances overtake him. Miles away from any communication or assistance, he has to navigate nature’s dangers as well as the surprising criminal element that hides within the park system.
In a place where a horse can fall into a glacier crevasse and a man has to keep track of how few bullets he has left for defense, anything can happen. And the fact that it wasn’t just the animals but savage humans he had to fear makes reading it tense and scary. And yet, Jack is no Boy Scout. The author, Kris Farmen, takes a risk by making his protagonist less than perfect. At times, he’s vicious and retaliatory. The risk pays off in a story that is far more believable than if Jack was a saint.
Clearly, this is a work of literary fiction, yet it has the elements of suspense that you’d find in a crime novel. I hit the second half of the book at about midnight, and there was no option for sleep after that. I could barely breathe as I stayed up and finished the book. The exhaustion the next day was worth it. For one thing, the survival story of endless cold and dinners of furry animals (if there was to be any dinner at all) locked me into the story. As a reader, I felt incredibly wimpy to imagine that a person could do all this to survive when I can barely go without coffee without terrible consequences. The character of Jack is complete: we know what he thinks, dreams about, hopes for, and regrets. We sense his loyalty and his morality even while we may be horrified at his actions. The details of the Alaskan regions are specific, as are the ways he kills, skins, and eats all sorts of prey.
My only real distraction in the novel has to do with the opinions of virtually every character against both the Federal government and the Canadian park service-at times I felt like there was too much commentary on the actions of both against private landowners in regard to public policy. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject when a family home could be taken forcibly, then used for the ranger’s use or to rent for tourists or even left empty to decay. So the repetition of the acrimony towards the government was a little tiresome, yet in the denouement, Farmen ties it together in a way that actually makes sense. Again, he takes the risk of letting the reader decide the issue, after showing both sides, and I think this sort of resolution again makes the story that much more captivating.