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Allure of the Aleuts

Debut novel succumbs to mystery of ages



Just when it started to feel like bookstores were vomiting chick-lit novels like college girls puking shots after a night at Feruqi’s, a book comes along that proves you can actually have a female protagonist without rehashing everything ever written by Candace Bushnell.

In her debut novel, And She Was, author Cindy Dyson (who resides near Glacier Park) introduces 31-year-old Brandy, a hard-boiled, cynical blonde who follows her fisherman boyfriend to a remote harbor town in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Though Brandy’s dissatisfaction with her transient life threatens to overwhelm the novel, Dyson ultimately avoids that pitfall by chronicling an age-old Aleut mystery, compelling Brandy to follow it. Instead of cloying late-20s coming-of-age syndrome, Brandy’s personal conflicts become intriguing subtext, politely taking the back seat to a 200-year-old conspiracy.

Upon Brandy’s arrival on Unalaska Island, her boyfriend meets her at the ferry and promptly falls asleep after their I-missed-you-so-much reunion sex, leaving Brandy to explore the area around their motel. There, she meets a 28-year-old Aleut woman, a coke-whore named Bellie who offers to share some blow. Snorting lines and drinking coffee until 7 a.m., Brandy leaves Bellie’s trailer with a warning on her mind: “‘The thing is,’ Bellie said above the sputtering Mr. Coffee, ‘it’s not the kind of place you should come to by accident. And you,’ she said, eyes taking in everything from my boots to my hair, ‘look like an accident.’”

A natural blonde in tight jeans who knows her way around a bar, Brandy easily finds a job as a cocktail waitress at the Elbow Room, a legendary Aleutian bar (Dyson herself worked there in her early 20s; it’s recently been closed). There the local color intensifies as fights break out nightly and Brandy gets pinched and groped while making her rounds. Often, her last task of the night involves dragging a drunken, urine-soaked Aleut woman, Little Liz, from the bathroom stall to a waiting cab.

Scrawled among the bathroom graffiti, Brandy finds the first hints of the mystery that involves past and present violence, potentially more dangerous than any barroom brawl at the Elbow Room. Later, after her boyfriend leaves on a long fishing trip, Brandy fills her hours reading books on local history. Reaching as far back as an 18th-century famine among the Aleuts, the secret Brandy stumbles upon is one closely held and passed down to only a select group of women in every Aleut generation. Brandy’s secret belongs to Bellie and Little Liz and two old Aleut women.

In alternating chapters, Dyson chronicles the history of the islands with respect to the ancient conspiracy and follows Brandy’s new life on Unalaska. More atmospheric than many novels, in a manner reminiscent of Snow Falling on Cedars, And She Was holds its own weight when the Aleutian Islands are allowed to become a kind of living, breathing character, one ultimately more interesting than our blonde cocktail waitress (who philosophizes on the nuances of blondedom a tad too much). In little bits, we trace back through an enormous history, and the more we learn, the more Brandy’s present-day scenario gains in intensity. Amid the fog and the wind and rain, we wonder about the half-naked Aleut woman who shows up at Brandy’s door beaten black and blue, the man found dead near the water, the women Brandy follows up to the caves and the strange print of the half-smiling sad-eyed woman Brandy dubs Aleut Mona Lisa. As the setting deepens and grows around Brandy, her life begins to feel, to reader and character alike, smaller, more dangerous, and hence more interesting.

Because And She Was balances Brandy’s present-day with a 200-year history that eventually meets up with the present, the narrative can feel a bit clunky at times. After opening with the entire lyrics from the Talking Heads single “And She Was,” readers are told the opening chapter takes place both in the spring of 1741 and the spring of 1961, yet the voice we hear in the first line belongs to Brandy post-1986 and we never again visit 1961. I keep hearing the voice of an old writing teacher who used to chant the mantra: “Begin simply, begin reasonably...”

Similarly, toward the middle of the novel, some chapters begin with long italicized introductions relating necessary history. As readers, we’re left to wonder if this is authorial interruption, a page from one of Brandy’s history books, or Brandy herself, speaking to us from a future outside the realm of the novel. Though Dyson clearly did extensive research, it’s also evident she had a difficult time sewing it into the novel without showing too many seams.

But despite the odd structural twinge here and there, Dyson’s debut novel is one to read slowly and with savor. And She Was tackles age-old conflicts and personal battles in an ancient and troublesome setting. Digging in with both hands, Dyson has turned up a richly complex story that lingers.

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