They say covers sell books, and they do. But with Cindy Dyson’s debut novel, a song did it for me.
I saw the title, “And She Was,” and the Talking Heads song of the same name immediately started looping through my mind.
Sure enough, there’s a real connection.
And real is an apt description for this book, which is set in the wind-swept Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. Little wonder, since Dyson relied on her own experiences as a barmaid there to give this book a firm sense of authenticity.
Brandy, who likes to think she was named after a drink, is a true blonde and truly unattached. She prefers her men easy and her parties wild. With nothing better to do, she follows a good-looking fisherman to a remote boomtown in the Aleutian Islands, and gets a job as a waitress in a notoriously dangerous bar.
Good-hearted, smart and venerable beneath a trashy and trash-talking façade, Brandy becomes intrigued by the local Aleut women and their stories and secrets. Her curiosity leads her to study graffiti in restrooms as well as history books about the islands and their people, both of which were devastated in different ways by Russian conquests, the gold rush and World War II.
The islands hold an old secret. Some 250 years before Brandy got to Unalaska Island, three starving Aleut mothers made a heroic decision to take their fate into their own hands. But broken taboos result in unimaginable consequences and a dark and burdensome birthright that is handed down through generations.
Survival is at the heart of this book—the survival of a people and that of Brandy herself, although she doesn’t realize at first just how lost she is.
At once intimate and epic, the story is told by various voices—the haunted Aleut women and the smart, smart-mouthed waitress—across time and place. But the parts are woven together as gracefully as an Aleut grass basket.
Books take you places if you let them. Figuratively and literally.
On a recent trip to D.C., I went to the new National Museum of the American Indian where I walked through an exhibit on Native Americans from the Northwest. While the exhibit didn’t go as far north as I would have liked, I did find some similarities between what I was seeing right then and what I was reading at night back at my hotel.
At the heart of it all was a sameness in the struggle to maintain traditions and simply keep a people from disappearing altogether.
When I finished the book and began writing this column, I went poking around on Dyson’s website. There’s a part there she calls “The Cave.” It is, she says, “a place I put stuff I want to play with, webwise. Nothing of value so don’t go for a good reason.”
Naturally I went in, and so I can tell you: Don’t believe that.
I discovered some practical ideas on writing query letters, and I found the query letter she sent out to agents. In it she wrote: “the researcher in me pored through Aleutian anthropological papers and explorers’ journals, while the cocktail waitress in me remembered the seamy side of the ‘80s—the dim bars thudding with Judas Priest, the coke-streaked mirrors, and how it feels to stand on an island at the edge of the world with nowhere to go.”
Dyson wrote what she knew, and then she did her research well.
And she ended up with a fascinating, well-written book unlike anything I’ve read in quite a while.
This column originally appeared in The Birmingham News.