“Seaplane in the Final Approach”
By Rebecca Roeker Double Day, 2022; 288 pages $27
In this dark but somewhat funny novel, Rebecca Ruckers, who lives in Germany but grew up in California and spent several summers working in Alaska, creates the life and characters associated with a wild lodge on an island near Kodiak. There, three young women who have just graduated from high school work alongside the owners of the inn and an old man named Chef.
Guests of the lodge come from all over the world to fish, partake in the idea of wildlife, drink chilled beer in a stream, and dine on salmon and pancakes. The owners, Stu and Maureen, enjoy frequent Alaskan adventure stories and weather trifles; Drinking Stowe plays the hearty host while devout Maureen, with “a practitioner’s laughter and skill,” manages everything and everyone.
The narrator, Myra, is hired for the summer as “a local jack of all trades,” and specifically, as a baker. “My role at Wilderness Lodge was to act as if I were offering the good things out of the generosity of my soul, and to provide the guests, like Grandma, with sweets,” she says.
The smallness of the world she has entered comforts Mira, a troubled teen whose “ferocity was about to become”. In a long background section near the start, we learn that the previous summer Mira was sent to stay with her “cool” aunt in her Kodiak cottage. On that visit, Mira becomes fascinated by a certain hunter and begins a fantasy life around him. In her life plan, she works in the inn to spend the summer and earns enough money to rent a place in Kodiak, where she meets her fantasy hunter.
As a character, Mira is a really interesting young woman, obsessed with what she calls “corruption”. She’s wary of some dangers – like the usual Alaskan earthquakes, tsunamis, bears, a cold ocean as well as anything that might present itself. She is highly imaginative, imagining her own “brilliant Alaska future” in various scenarios as well as the past, present and future lives of others at the resort.
There are hints near the start that there will be drama at the inn. Stowe flirts with the three young women. Maureen is annoyingly fun. Mira thinks, “No one liked Maureen that much.” One of Mira’s co-workers is concerned when the other, recovering from a breakdown, goes up the hill with Stowe to fix the waterline. The chef looks a little intimidating, at least to Mira.
However, there is not much mystery. Mira interrupts her own story at frequent intervals to talk about the future, as she herself teaches English in foreign countries. “Later,” she tells us, “I met a lot of people like the chef”—she compared him to some who had studied in foreign countries because it was impossible for them to go home. And “years later,” when “she was snared in a crowded Beijing bar,” she repeated the cliched phrase Maureen had always said. And again, “I’ve thought a lot about Stowe in the years since Lavender Island” – a clip analyzing Stowe’s desire to “feed his youth more.”
Through these leaps ahead, we learn some of what happened on the island that summer through the lens of memory and adult reflection. This takes some surprise from the main story but adds to the narrator’s larger story of “becoming”, her understanding of what escaped her when she was a teenager.
The writer, who said in an interview that she worked at a Kodiak cannery, on a fishing boat, and in “hospitality,” surely spent some time at an Alaskan inn at some point. With a few exceptions, you get the environment, details and dynamics of cottage life impressively well. For example, security signage in guest cabins describes natural world style pencil drawings: “There was a bear, in a peaceful position ready to root through some berry bushes. Willow winds were depicted, a very strong wind rolling at the speed of a mountain gathering. , as a submerged cloud. There was also a Pushki paper with a pruned hand extending toward it.”
These descriptions are not only accurate, but are presented in a special, often strange way, in the vision and understanding of the narrator. “…By the time the Germans came, there was fireweed on the gray hillsides, the bioluminescence had left the water, and the salmon began to flake in the rivers, and I took fillets from it like roast chicken.”
Wealthy tourists who come to the hostel in their expensive outerwear generally seem ignorant and cartoonish. They’re on vacation, and they focus on wine, beer, food, a hot tub, and other amenities they see as their due. “They ate huge amounts without sweating” and “were concerned with the big animals,” Mira commented.
Near the end, as the inn appears to fail, Meera and the chef are sent to town for supplies. Myra notes, “I was impressed by the chef’s drunkenness with the same cry of loneliness I felt at the sound of empty rope ball strings hitting the rope ball poles on the black roof after school.” She has a kind of epiphany, where she realizes what she’s missed. In the next crisis, she showed herself as the only adult on the island.
As an upcoming novel, “Seaplane in Final Approach” stars a complex and engaging narrator against a well-made Alaskan backdrop. As entertaining as it is, it also explores human nature and something about what attracts people to Alaska.