Craving Alaska, How to Savor the Last Frontier
Craving Alaska by Day Pesh Melba has been described as “a sexy, savory romp through the Great Land.” That’s a measure of the prevailing mood of this unusual novel. Beneath the wild food, sex, and adventure is a not-so-hidden message worth pondering: Is it acceptable to achieve our cherished ends by whatever means possible, even a hoax, even fake news?
The fast-paced novel opens in Manhattan Plaza’s famous Champagne Bar, where the plot will come full circle some 300 pages and two months later. Protagonist Daphne Forest is about to sign a contract for her next cookbook, called Craving Alaska. We meet her, her agent Ellie Shorter, her Alaskan lover Jason, and confidante Kristie. Oblique references to how they have all been connected sparks the reader’s curiosity. (As one of those books where characters steer plot, be prepared for a rogue’s gallery of them.)
A few pages into the prologue, set in October 2002, we encounter a detour sign: “Two months earlier the meeting of this cast was utterly unlikely and inconceivable.” Thus begins the amazing backstory, the bulk of the novel that carries it through Part I and its indispensable Part II.
Two months back, in August 2002, we meet a less serene Daphne sneaking around up in Alaska. She is running away from an awards ceremony at the Plaza that would bestow upon her first cookbook, Sagebrush Biscuits & Chokecherry Jam, the Buon Gusto, the most coveted food award in the business. We learn that the book was based on a hoax (childish revenge for an unsuspecting editor’s pickiness about accuracy). It seems the self-proclaimed hack writer says she procured the charming vignettes and wild food recipes from a band of renegade nuns living in the Northwest wilds off the grid, blasphemously performing the Catholic mass. She says she was able to coax the recipes from the Sisters of Perpetual Motion on the condition that she guard their precise identity and whereabouts. She didn’t expect the cock and bull story to charm the masses and become a bestseller. She is stunned, her conscience seizes up, and that sends her on the lam.
The novel’s Part I, covering a little more than half the book, is the “sexy, savory romp” as tension builds–how long can Daphne avoid being outed for her peccadillo? There are hints and allegations of “phoney” from some savvy journalists but the masses remain enamored. Contemplating her next move, she signs on to a guided raft and hiking tour far, far from the scene of her crime, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Here comes a repertoire of even more incorrigibles — who romp, savor the last frontier, and enjoy sex — Daphne, a seasoned outdoors woman, notes the double-entendre of adventure travel as participants share trysts in their tents. Meanwhile, Daphne’s anxiety builds amid the often hilarious interactions among the group, all unaware of her fame, or infame.
The vivid descriptions of Alaska’s Far North alone are worth this read. They take the reader through the expansive rolling tundra of the Far North as it turns to autumn red, gold, and amber; on primeval caribou migrations; and to close-ups of a rich chain of wildlife from grizzlies to musk oxen. The novel takes the reader on a sea voyage to the dazzling blue ice of glaciers of the Inside Passage, a perilous backpack over the historic Chilkoot Trail, and a life-changing visit to a native village where caribou cuisine has been stewing for millennia, maybe just waiting for the Lower Forty-eight to get hip to its taste. If only some famous food author would lend her name to a book on those culinary delights . . .
Perhaps the dawning seasonal change of the tundra is meant to mirror the transformation ticking inside of Daphne. It seems that anyone who witnesses the great American Serengeti can only enlarge herself and become a better person. We learn that Daphne’s latest misdeed is only the climax of lifelong devil-may-care acts, including four or five marriages (she’s not sure the impulsive one in Mexico counts).
During her Alaskan escapade, Daphne meets three people who inspire her awakening: Jason, the lover; Barbara Fisher, a gutsy congresswoman fighting to save the refuge from oil drilling; and Rachel King, Gwich’in elder in Caribou Village, an Athabascan tribe that has survived on the Porcupine Caribou migrations that would be negatively impacted by oil drilling in the refuge.
Daphne decides to come out of hiding, return to New York, confess her hoax, and accept all penalties and consequences. She phones her agent who up to this point has had no idea where her famous author is hiding. Before Daphne can fess up, her agent excitedly informs her that the mysterious nuns have decided to give a phone interview to a journalist — and will send him photos. How could that be? Daphne is speechless.
Enter Part II, a parallel universe that has been coalescing — out of a hoax — since August 2002 when Daphne first ran to Alaska. That very day two men in San Francisco purchased Daphne’s Sagebrush Biscuits & Chokecherry Jam for their gay commune’s cook. The two parts of the novel might be called Crooked Heart meets Breaking Heart. Buck, designated head of the household, is forlorn, in a persistent state of melancholy. He and his longtime lover are at a sexual impasse that they cannot talk about. While Buck’s first-person woeful narrative at first dominates Part II, the plot bends toward the house cook who becomes so enthralled with the author and the nuns in SB&CJ, it disrupts the commune, fomenting big changes, wild plans, wild hoaxes. He’ll do anything to meet the author and the nuns.
It’s clever how two disparate stories intersect, something that could happen in real life, but I don’t want to give away any more plot. As the press release reads, “Craving Alaska is really two novels in one, though neither could survive without the other. Forest may be the author of the wild foods hoax but it feeds right into the needs of a gay commune in San Francisco. And how it all comes full circle — well, must be savored to be believed!”
Finally, it is up to the reader to chew on whether ends justify the means in this case.
Craving Alaska, How to savor the last frontier by Day Pesh Melba comes in paper and kindle formats.