Maybe I was waiting for summer, when the mind naturally turns to salmon, to read Annie Boochever’s middle grade novel, Bristol Bay Summer. Salmon do indeed figure prominently in the story — but I needn’t have waited. Bristol Bay Summer is a well-told coming-of-age story worth reading anytime.
Boochever balances the various elements of the story adeptly, ranging from teen angst to surviving wilderness challenges to the uncertainties of budding romance. Fifteen-year-old Zoey’s inner turmoil over her parents’ divorce is compounded by the shock of moving from her familiar life in Colorado to Anchorage. Then, even worse, she and her younger brother Eliot are carted off to a tent on the shores of Bristol Bay for a summer of hauling salmon with Mom, and Mom’s new boyfriend, Patrick, in his rickety second-hand plane. Zoey wants nothing to do with this new life being foisted upon her by adults except get out of it. Surely, if she could just get back to Colorado, she could find Dad and they’d work things out. Except Dad never writes back…
|Alaska Northwest Books, 2014.|
Zoey’s relationships with her family and the new friends she makes on Bristol Bay evolve from initial self-absorption to gradual acceptance and appreciation, not just for the bounty of bush Alaska, but for a broader understanding of family and friendship. As her heart opens to this new landscape and its people, she gradually releases the past to accept the present and envision a realistic future.
This story has a lot of heart. But it also delivers plenty of adventure with numerous “firsts.” Remember your first ride in a single-engine plane? The first time you saw a bear in the wild? That first time you stood in freezing-cold water for hours on end harvesting salmon? Small boats, small planes, big bears, rough weather, illness and accident — any of these can prove disastrous in a remote location like fish camp. They can also prove cliche if written about in a superficial way. Thankfully, Boochever gives us the real deal with authentic details, plausible plot and very likable characters.
Speaking of which, did I mention there’s this boy? Turns out a very nice young man, competent and quiet, with his own wounds to heal, lives not too far down the beach. He and his family, their partners in the fish business, become genuine friends — and in Zoey and Thomas’s case, perhaps a bit more.
Boochever, who was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska, spent her own summer on Bristol Bay. (Check out her website to learn more.) As a writer, she weaves the realities of life in Alaska into her story without letting them overwhelm for dramatic effect. Boats, planes and bears carry inherent dangers but in Bristol Bay Summer — thankfully — they keep to their proper places as part of the fabric of life.
Bristol Bay Summer is an honest story for younger to mid-teens, authentically told and well-crafted. I say, read it soon — the salmon are running!