“The Seaplane on Final Approach”
By Rebecca Rukeyser; Doubleday, 2022; 288 pages; $27
In this dark but somehow still quite funny novel, Rebecca Rukeyser, who associated lives in Germany but grew up in California and spent several summers working in Alaska, creates the life and personalities with a wilderness lodge on an island near Kodiak. There, three young women just out of high school work alongside the lodge owners and an old man named Chef.
The lodge guests come from around the world to fish, partake of the idea of wilderness, drink beer cooled in a creek, and feast on salmon and pies. The owners, Stu and Maureen, entertain with repeated Alaska adventure stories and platitudes about the weather; hard-drinking Stu acts the part of hearty host while pious Maureen, with “a practiced laugh and a practiced jauntiness,” manages everything and everyone.
The narrator, Mira, has been hired for the summer as a “domestic jack-of-all-trades” and, most specifically, as a baker. “My role at the Wilderness Lodge,” she says, “was to act as if I was supplying goodies out of the generosity of my spirit, and to ply the guests, grandma-like, with sweets.”
The smallness of the world she’s entered is comforting to Mira, a troubled teenager whose “ferocity was leveled at becoming.” In a long background section near the beginning, we learn that Mira had been sent the summer before to stay with a “marvelous” aunt at her Kodiak cabin. On that visit, Mira became enamored of a particular fisherman and began a fantasy life surrounding him. In her life’s plan, she would work at the lodge for a summer and earn enough money to rent a place in Kodiak, where she would reunite with her fantasy-fisherman.
As a character, Mira is a truly interesting young woman, obsessed as she is with what she calls “sleaze.” She’s eager for some danger — the usual Alaska ones of earthquakes, tsunamis, bears and cold ocean plus whatever might present itself. She is highly 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 are hints near the start that there will be drama at the lodge. Stu flirts with the three young women. Maureen is annoyingly pleasant; Mira thinks “no one liked Maureen much.” One of Mira’s co-workers is alarmed when the other, the one recovering from a breakup, goes up the hill with Stu to fix the waterline. Chef seems a little creepy, at least to Mira.
There is never too much mystery, though. Mira interrupts her own story at frequent intervals to speak from the future, as her adult self who teaches English in foreign countries. “Later,” she tells us, “I met a lot of people like Chef” — comparing him to some who taught in foreign countries because it was impossible for them to go home. And “years later,” when she “was hemmed in a crowded bar in Beijing,” she repeats a cliché that Maureen always 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 wanting “to suckle at his own youth some more.”
Through such leaps into the future, we learn some of what transpired on the island that summer through a lens of memory and adult reflection. This takes some of the surprise out of the main story but adds to the narrator’s larger story of “becoming,” her understanding of what escaped her as a teenager.
The author, who said in an interview that she worked in a Kodiak cannery, on a fishing boat, and in “hospitality,” certainly lodge spent time at an Alaska at some point. With a few exceptions, she gets the environment and the details and dynamics of lodge life impressively right. For example, she describes the safety placards in the guest cabins as pencil sketches in a naturalist’s style: “There was a bear, peacefully poised to root through some berry bushes. The williwaw, a gale-force wind that came rolling down the mountain gathering speed, was depicted as a whorled cloud. There was also a pushki leaf with a manicured hand reaching toward it.”
Such descriptions are not only precise but rendered in the narrator’s particular, often peculiar, way of seeing and understanding. “… by the time the Germans came there was fireweed on the graying hillsides, and the bioluminescence had left the water, and the salmon were beginning to peel in the rivers, strips coming off them like off a roast chicken.”
The well-heeled tourists who come to the lodge in their expensive outdoors clothing generally appear as clueless and cartoony. They’re on vacation, focused on the wine, beer, food, hot tub and other amenities they see as their due. Mira comments, “They ate tremendous amounts without breaking a sweat” and “They were interested in large animals.”
Towards the end, as the lodge seems to be failing, Mira and Chef are sent to town for supplies. Mira observes, “Chef’s drunkenness impressed me with the same howl of loneliness I’d felt at the sound of empty tetherball chains hitting tetherball poles on the blacktop after school.” She has an epiphany of sorts, in which she realizes what she’s missing. In the following crisis, she shows herself to be the only adult on the island.
As a coming-of-age novel, “The Seaplane on Final Approach” stars a complicated and engaging narrator against a well-wrought Alaska background. As it entertains, it also explores human nature and something about what draws people to Alaska.