The Alaskan Laundry
By Brendan Jones
Mariner Books. 400 pp. $14.95
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Reviewed by Paul Davis
nolead ends So, what's a nice, South Philly Italian girl doing in Alaska?
Tara Marconi leaves her boyfriend, family, and job in the family bakery to venture to Alaska. She is 18, independent, angry, and tough, a Golden Gloves boxer. She decides to go to Alaska after her strict Sicilian American father kicks her out of the house.
Father and daughter have issues relating to her mother's recent death. And she is wrestling with memories of a trauma she has kept secret from her family. "She wanted to disappear, like the dot when she turned off the TV, reduced to a point," Jones writes, "to reanimate on some different planet, find some new sun to orbit."
Her cousin worked in Alaska on a fishing boat during a couple of summers, and his stories of Alaska, which he calls "the last frontier," inspire her to travel there. "Place is huge," he tells her.
In this coming-of-age story, Marconi travels to "the Rock," a remote island governed by the seasons and the arduous, foul, often dangerous work of commercial fishing. She works first at a hatchery, then a fish processor, and then signs on as a deckhand on fishing boats.
"As she moved toward the car deck, she thought how nice it was that someone from around here might think this could be her home, instead of the brick-and-mortar houses built over the crumbling Wissahickon schist curbs of South Philadelphia," Jones writes. "Her mother had always spoken about the magic of living by the sea, her memories of sleeping on a boat open to the stars, cradled by the waves. 'Let the hands of St. Anthony carry you.' And now Tara was doing it, signed up to work in a fishing village. This year would be a fist to knock her open, a right cross to shake loose the grime and sadness."
Then she sees a World War II-era tugboat tied to a pier. She discovers that the harbormaster is planning to sink it, as it is taking up valuable space. She decides to buy and restore the tugboat, which reminds her of her mother's Sicilian stories. She somehow believes that living on it is a way forward.
She endures hostility aimed at her gender and her East Coast origins, storms on the Bering Sea, physical confrontations with rough-hewn Alaskans, and life in the woods. She encounters a grizzly bear and several odd local characters, including a Tlingit Alaskan native named Betteryear.
With ponytail threaded through the back of her Eagles ball cap, she perseveres, thanks to strength of will, the discipline and ability gained from boxing, the companionship of an adopted dog, the help of a few Alaskan friends, and the ever-present dream of owning and repairing that old tugboat.
Like Tara, author Brendan Jones traveled to Alaska when he was 19 and worked in a salmon hatchery. Like her, he lived in the Alaskan woods (while writing his novel). And also like her, he worked on fishing boats on the Bering Sea. He says the title of the book echoes the notion that people come to Alaska to scrub themselves clean of their pasts; with people coming and going, the state is a laundry on continuous cycle.
This is an interesting and well-written novel that takes the reader on a journey to the 49th state while chronicling a personal journey of discovery for a troubled and courageous young woman.