By Lara Messersmith-Glavin. University of Alaska Press, 2022. 190 pages. $16.95 paper, $13.95 ebook.
Most of the wealth of writing about commercial fishing in Alaska focuses on dramatic events — storms at sea, sinkings, testosterone-fueled mayhem. “Spirit Things” is something else. In a series of essays, Lara Messersmith-Glavin, who grew up on a seine boat fishing out of Kodiak, presents the fishing life as she lived it, in memory, reflection and deep dives into myth and meaning. The memories come from her childhood and adolescent summers on the boat — from her start in the late 1970s at age two, to age 21, when she left the family business to embark on her own travel and terrestrial life.
Each of the 17 essays is titled with a “thing” — one word that serves as a vessel of meaning and provides a launch ramp for related thought. Net, salmon, wave, winch, buoy, knot, glove, radio and so on. Her descriptions are detailed, accurate and beautifully written — as pleasurable to read by those who fish themselves as by those who may never have stepped on a boat of any kind or seen a fish outside of a restaurant. They provide a clear, insider look into a way of life, including the changes it underwent in the 20 years of her participation. They also provide a look back at that earlier era, already being lost to the mists of history.
Messersmith-Glavin is acutely sensitive to visual details, sounds, smells, movements and patterns of all kinds. Her “OCD brain” and synesthesia — experiencing one sense through another — heightens her perceptions and language. When she walks down a dock — “a minefield for the weird and sensually sensitive” — her feet find patterns in the wood, and she has to match the pressures on one foot and then the other, the pressures triggering a sensation in her mouth. “The pattern unspools like origami unfolding itself.”
Or consider this, from the “Light” chapter: “The moon’s path paints a bright stripe, our wake mimicking its shape in froth and color, a rare event taking place in the water around us. A line of vivid green snakes out behind us, impossibly lit as if struck by a wand, the gleam of it a cloud of microscopic droplets, tiny bioluminescent organisms flashing and flaring like a storm of sparks, their collective flicker merged into a hazy glow.”
One chapter, “Buoy,” consists of five parts, each recounting one of her July birthdays. This forms a sort of memoir in brief: at 5, her first experience jigging for cod with the help of a favorite deckhand; at 7 swinging on a buoy tied to the power block after receiving gifts from her “hundred big brothers” in the fleet; at 12 wishing she was home with friends; at 18 getting time off to soak in the tender’s hot tub; and at 21 in a bar during a strike and returning, sullenly, to the boat bearing her name.
Messersmith-Glavin doesn’t dwell on her situation as a girl and young woman in a male-dominated industry, although she does reference it from time to time. In “Skiff,” she discusses the hierarchy aboard a seine boat, where the “skiffman” is highly skilled and highly valued and the deck crew fills the lowest ranks. “Despite my mother’s experience on deck, I was raised, both implicitly and explicitly, to believe that women were fundamentally mechanically incompetent.” She was entirely satisfied with being on deck, where she could be “the toughest muscle, the quickest thinker, the best with knots and gear. I stuck to my domain, where it was safe.”
In the “Knots” chapter, the author celebrates the history, puzzles and magic of knots. The first knots she learned gave her “a secret way into the rites of deckhand passage as a girl — a way in which knotcraft felt equally masculine and feminine and in turn made me feel deeply useful, which was rare.” As a teenager, she “was given the dubious honor of doing the net-mending work over the fumbling hands of grown men … my pride kept my knife and needle fast and sure.”
The essay “Wake,” late in the book, is a lovely triptych that explores the word’s multiple meaning. The first section recreates a scene of waking at the squeal of the engine starting and rushing to pull the anchor, proof for the deckhand that she’s “a superior worker.” The second part concerns the wake that’s “the footprint of the passing boat, the frothing trail it carves behind it, with crests curling off at angles and churned up water behind.” In the final section, the wake refers to the death of a good friend, who went down with his boat. Here, Messersmith-Glavin recounts her return to Kodiak for a memorial gathering of shared stories and shared food. “That is a wake — to stand in the dark in a circle of people who love and to see clearly how a person has touched you, to wake up to their presence in your life, to their impact on others, and on the world.”
Messersmith-Glavin has been away from fishing now for longer than she lived its life, and yet, in “Spirit Things,” the experience of that time is captured, like a net full of salmon, in sparkling, nourishing detail. This is a book to love and cherish.
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