“Like other great creatures before them,” Alexis M. Smith writes in Glaciers, “the glaciers were dying… a spectacle not to be missed.” Isabel, the main character of Smith’s novel, moved back to Alaska as a baby and can only imagine how the other passengers on the voyage from Seattle reacted when they witnessed an iceberg break apart from a glacier: “There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.” Isabel, who has known these glaciers since childhood, is more closely attuned to their imminent loss. Their demise tracks relationships in her life that have succumbed to once imperceptible fissures.
At twenty-eight, Isabel now lives in Portland and collects old odds and ends, fragments of other people’s lives that, like icebergs, have drifted away from their places of origin. The novel spans one day in her life, slipping in and out of her past through anecdotes, as she prepares to attend a party in the perfect vintage dress. The novel begins with a glimpse into Isabel’s first visit to a major city. At nine-years-old, she found that the “Old churches (of Seattle) were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.”
My guess is that many children around Isabel’s age at the time would equate dilapidated houses with leafless winter trees. My twins, who are turning six soon, exclaimed only a few days ago, “Oh no! That is so sad!,” when they saw the bare branches of their beloved magnolia. The sight of a neglected house saddens them, too, but primarily because they personify inanimate objects. They don’t yet understand what a neglected house probably means for the family that lives or used to live there. As far as they know, it is as sad as the bare tree, even though our magnolia will bloom again, while the houses we pass on our way to Center City will only fall further into disrepair. Endemic poverty is more similar to the retreating glaciers, which probably won’t advance again, than it is to the leafless trees, which will be green again in only a few months.The novel takes place in the fall — “a few yellow gingko leaves flutter from a tree,” which Isabel watches “eddy around the elk statue and into the fountain below.” She thinks about the trees of Amsterdam, a place she only knows through second hand means, such as a junk store postcard with a 1965 postmark and a message to someone else. Isabel imagines the sender’s and receiver’s stories, as their postcard becomes part of her story almost five decades later. The anecdotal structure of this novel, which is essentially a composite of Isabel’s life and the imagined lives of others, reminded me of the accumulation of many snowfalls that, in time, compress into ice. Like a glacier on the verge of calving, these anecdotes are only loosely tied together.
The themes of accumulation and disintegration not only run throughout the novel, but are also reflected in the beautiful cover design (by Diane Chonette). The vintage dress on a mannequin consists of scraps of old documents—or ephemera, as a younger Isabel learns on a trip to Seattle—that are breaking apart like icebergs.
Between the beautiful covers, Glaciers is an elegant little novel, one that is best enjoyed in paper form. Isabel’s love of old things—the smell, touch, and history of them—triggered my nostalgia for how I used to read books, before my e-reader housed the bulk of personal library. It also gave me an opportunity to use my favorite bookmark. I was lucky enough to receive this copy of Glaciers from blogger Becky A. Johnson way back in April for World Book Night. I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get to reading it!