“The Seaplane on Final Approach”
By Rebecca Rukeyser; double day, 2022; 288 pages; $27
Rebecca Rukeyser, who lives in Germany but grew up in California and spent several summers working in Alaska, charts the life and personalities of a wilderness cabin on an island near by in this somber but somehow still quite funny novel connected to Kodiak. There three young women who have just graduated from high school work alongside the lodge owners and an old man named Chef.
Lodge guests come from all over the world to fish, share in the spirit of the wild, sip a beer chilled in a creek and feast on salmon and pies. The owners, Stu and Maureen, entertain with repeated Alaskan adventure stories and platitudes about the weather; Hard-drinking Stu plays the role of warm host, while devout Maureen manages everything and everyone with “a practiced laugh and a practiced gaiety.”
The narrator Mira was hired for the summer as a “houseman in every alley” and especially as a baker. “My role at Wilderness Lodge,” she says, “was to pretend to deliver treats out of generosity and shower guests with candy like a grandma.”
The smallness of the world she has entered is comforting to Mira, a troubled teenager whose “savagery was directed toward becoming.” In a long background section at the beginning, we learn that Mira had been sent to live with a “wonderful” aunt at her Kodiak cabin the previous summer. It was during this visit that Mira fell in love with a certain fisherman and began a fantasy life around him. In her life plan, she would spend a summer working at the lodge and earn enough money to rent an apartment in Kodiak, where she would meet her fantasy fisherman again.
As a character, Mira is a really interesting young woman obsessed with what she calls “dirt”. She’s eager for danger – the usual Alaskans with earthquakes, tsunamis, bears and cold ocean and anything that might throw their way. She is very imaginative, imagining her own “Brilliant Alaskan Future” in various scenarios, as well as the past, present, and future lives of others at the lodge.
There is evidence near the launch that there will be drama at the lodge. Stu flirts with the three young women. Maureen is annoyingly pleasant; Mira thinks “nobody liked Maureen very much.” One of Mira’s co-workers is alarmed when the other, recovering from a breakup, takes Stud up the hill to fix the waterline. Boss seems a little creepy, at least on Mira.
However, there are never too many secrets. Mira periodically interrupts her own story to speak from the future, as her adult self teaching English in foreign countries. “Later,” she tells us, “I met a lot of people like Chef” — comparing him to some who taught abroad because it was impossible for them to go home. And “years later,” when she was “locked up in a crowded bar in Beijing,” she repeats a cliché Maureen used to say. And again, “I’ve thought a lot about Stu in the years since Lavender Island” — a passage in which she analyzes Stu’s desire to “suck more into his own youth.”
Through such leaps into the future, we learn some of what transpired on the island that summer through a lens of adult memory and reflection. This takes away some of the surprise of the main story, but adds to the larger story of the narrator’s “becoming” to her understanding of what she missed as a teenager.
The author, who said in an interview that she worked at a Kodiak cannery, on a fishing boat, and in “hospitality,” certainly spent some time at an Alaskan lodge. With a few exceptions, she impressively balances the environment and the details and dynamics of lodge life. For example, she describes the safety posters in the guest cabins as pencil sketches in the style of a naturalist: “There was a bear, peacefully ready to rummage through some berry bushes. The williwaw, a gale force wind rolling down the mountain with increasing speed, was depicted as a swirling cloud. There was also a Pushki leaf with a manicured hand grabbing it.”
Such descriptions are not only precise, but are rendered in the narrator’s particular, often idiosyncratic, point of view and understanding. “…when the Germans came there were fireweeds on the gray slopes and the bioluminescence had left the water and the salmon began to peel in the rivers, strips peeling off them like a fried chicken.”
The well-heeled tourists who come to the lodge in their expensive outdoor clothing usually appear clueless and caricatured. They’re on vacation and their focus is on the wine, beer, food, hot tub and other amenities that are their due. Mira comments, “They ate tons without breaking a sweat” and “They were interested in big animals.”
Towards the end, when the lodge seems to be failing, Mira and Chef are sent into town to get supplies. Mira notes, “The chef’s drunkenness struck me with the same howl of loneliness I felt at the sound of empty tetherball chains bouncing off tetherball poles on the pavement after school.” She has a kind of epiphany in which she realize what is missing. In the ensuing crisis, she reveals herself to be the only adult on the island.
A coming-of-age novel, The Seaplane on Final Approach features an intricate and engaging narrator against a well-crafted Alaskan backdrop. While entertaining, it also explores human nature and something about what draws people to Alaska.