Alaska proves an ideal location for a clean break. Isolation and dramatic scenery lend a wildness the Lower 48 can’t claim, and the northernmost state is a beacon for the strong willed as a result. Those same distinctions that make it home to adventurers also provide endless fodder for authors. With his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers joins the ranks of writers who set their characters loose in the vast state, hunting for something as close to freedom as the modern world may allow.
The novel follows Josie, a dentist and mother of two from Ohio who impulsively takes her kids to Alaska. She leaves behind their small town, their school and their father, a weak man named Carl who absconded to Florida. It was Carl who truly provided the impetus for the departure; after having children with Josie but refusing to marry her, he’s now getting married to another woman. What’s more, he wants to the kids to visit even after deserting them when he and Josie split years ago. Instead of sending the kids south, Josie takes them north without telling Carl, infusing their impromptu journey with a fear that he’ll come looking for them.
But Carl isn’t the only thing Josie has left behind. She’s lost her dentistry practice in a negligence lawsuit, and she blames herself for the untimely death of a man she cared about and encouraged to join the military. She also feels ostracized by her small community, where an influx of hyper-perfect yuppies makes her feel inadequate as a mother. Josie’s sense of parental shortcoming invoke memories of her own painful childhood, including her parents’ role in a psychiatric hospital scandal and her emancipation as a teenager. Unsure if she’s living the life she desires, she’s at a point of crisis.
Although set in Alaska, Heroes of the Frontier truly takes place in Josie’s confused mind. Eggers teases out the narrative in Josie’s alcohol-clouded stream of conscious, a choice that is deeply intimate despite its convoluted jumps back and forth in time. Pieces of her past unfold so gradually that linking them together can prove difficult, and keeping track of her various falling outs and grudges feels near impossible. But as Josie and her children road trip across Alaska, the novel coalesces into a thrilling story driven as much by real action as by Josie’s neuroses.
The true stars of the story are Josie’s children, the delightful Paul and Ana. Eight-year-old Paul is a sensitive boy who cares deeply for his little sister and is uncomfortably mature due to years of helping his single mother. Five-year-old Ana is a wrecking ball with a ferocious streak that makes her the perfect foil to her gentle brother. The dynamic duo ground a narrative that could otherwise become too tangential, drawing Josie—and the plot—back to the present with urgent concern over their travel plans or incredible feats of destruction. Even though Josie tends to wander too close to the rabbit hole of her own life, Ana and Paul drag her back into the moment.
The pacing and redundancy may make the novel feel a bit long, but Eggers’ latest still makes for an entertaining read. He peppers just enough danger and consequence into the tale, and his distinctive style lends itself well to Josie’s long internal monologues. Although not destined to be one of Eggers’ best, Heroes of the Frontier is nonetheless a fascinating ride.