Wilderness survival skills, it turns out, offer dubious strategies for a young girl negotiating her parents’ divorce. Keep your bags packed, Leigh Newman learns, and your mouth shut. “Can’t lives on won’t street,” her Alaskan father tells the 8-year-old Leigh, when she grows tired of gutting salmon or scared of a black bear rustling in their fishing camp. Newman’s sparkling new memoir Still Points North questions how useful these survival skills are in the lower 48, or for an adult negotiating intimacy.
After the divorce, young Leigh spends her school years living with her mother in Baltimore, attending a tony private girls’ school her mother insists her father pay for. Her mother works multiple jobs and claims poverty, but has a compulsion to buy unnecessary and expensive things. Leigh can’t figure out how to make friends (until alcohol—every awkward teenager’s friend—helps her find boyfriends), and is homesick for Alaska. And yet back in Anchorage, her father’s new marriage, complete with two young half-brothers, seems to shut Leigh out. Newman beautifully captures the mute and confused feelings of a child who has no way to articulate the pain she’s experiencing as she navigates the split worlds of her parents.
Her memoir is similarly split between two worlds: in this case, childhood and adulthood. Newman’s emotional impasse as an adult echoes her Alaskan childhood. She can survive anything—Russian mafia bars, Nepalese tigers, even a stint reviewing fantasy honeymoon locations as her own marriage breaks up. What she can’t figure out how to do is settle down and unpack her bags. Leaving her husband after only three months of marriage precipitates a crisis of past and present. The second half of the memoir careens between childhood memories and adult experiences, mirroring the psychological breakdown that leads Newman to breakthrough. Learning how to live rather than simply survive is a slow and rewarding process, for both writer and reader.
Despite its serious subject, Still Points North is adventurous and funny, leavened with a dose of pragmatic Alaskan humor. The salmon, propeller planes and mosquitoes of Alaska offer readers of this book a fresh and welcome spin on the dysfunctional family memoir.