YOU COULDN’T BLAME a reader for worrying that a novel named a winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, an award to support “literature of social change,” would be freighted with earnest do-gooders guaranteed moral victory. Fortunately, Marjorie Kowalski Cole understands that the struggle to do the right thing usually occurs when we’re otherwise occupied with such tasks as finding love, raising children, keeping friends, and paying bills.
In Correcting the Landscape, opportunities for change rise from the conversations that fictional Alaskans have — or don’t have — and through the choices they confront and avoid. The wry narrator, Gus Traynor, regards his role as editor and publisher of the weekly Fairbanks Mercury as a call to “address all manner of wrongs, serve the people, accrue a bit of glory, and entertain myself at the same time.” An idealist but not a romantic, he knows he’s overweight, understaffed, and insolvent. His paper appears thanks to ragtag help from his cranky sister, Noreen; a mildly insurgent Irish poet named Felix Heaven; and Gayle Kenneally, a part-Athabascan woman finishing a journalism degree while raising a son.
The civic dust-ups reported by the Mercury regularly force residents to look at themselves, and, Gus warns, “It’s not a pretty sight.” Two events precipitate his examination of his own role in the community. The developer who unnecessarily clear cuts a riverbank turns out to be a friend, and the drowning of Gayle’s hard-living cousin demonstrates how invisible Alaska’s indigenous people have become in a town that pretends to celebrate history. “The catch-22 of being a human: can’t see a thing as it is,” Gus notes.
Cole never allows Alaska’s outsized landscape and eccentricities to overwhelm a story that could take place anywhere, though many details about her fictional Fairbanks are true, including the reviled Unknown First Family monument that inspires Gus to act. What gives the novel insight rather than mere verisimilitude is the portrayal of ordinary people trying to juggle loss, failure, love, and conscience every day, to find “an expectation that’s better than hope,” as Gus says. Nobody’s perfect in Correcting the Landscape. That’s good, because neither are we.