The gutsiest young woman I’ve known recently rode her bicycle cross country and back, alone, in the heat of the summer. She was 21, slender, partially deaf.
Young women today are pluckier, in general, than women of my generation. We, too, wanted adventure, to get away from home. We went to Europe or Japan, but we did not necessarily take on treacherous mountains, harsh climates, or highways with 20-wheelers. Most of us did not do the work of men in male-dominated industries.
The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones took the author l0 years to complete. During the revision process, his protagonist kept changing (at first he had multiple changing points of view) but turned out, in the end, to be Tara--a young urban woman in her late teens who is bound for Port Anna to work in the fishing industry.
The novel is perhaps most notable for its thorough depiction of life in the town of Sitka (fictionalized as Port Anna) and for a glimpse at people who work in the commercial fishing industry. The story is unusual, the setting vivid, and the pace keeps one reading right along. The life Tara takes on fairly easily is a hardy, rugged life requiring physical stamina in a harsh landscape where people are blessed by the presence of other hard-working, free-spirited people and fabulous wildlife.
The title refers to the fact that some people look at Alaska as a “human laundry” in which those who are lost or broken, living in more sedate locations, go to mend, stretch their physical limitations (they may have already been through the wringer), and re-invent themselves.
The novel centers around Tara, the woman from Philadelphia who is trying to find her place in the universe. It is a coming-of-age story. Tara wants no commitments; she has tragically lost her beloved mother (who is Italian-born, from a fishing family) and is temporarily estranged from her
father. Her boyfriend, Connor, doesn’t seem exciting enough to keep her at home, so on a male cousin’s advice, she leaves quite suddenly to try to earn good money in commercial fishing in Alaska. Apparently, more than 10
percent of Alaska’s commercial fisherpeople are now female.
She lands in Port Anna. Having studied boxing while in high school, Tara apparently has almost a total lack of fear. While in Alaska, she works in a series of fishing industry jobs, each one more hazardous. The fishing and crabbing industries involve cold, brutal, hard manual labor with many risks. The hours are long and the accommodations not comfortable. In some cases, however, the money is more than generous for those who stay the course.
One of her gruff bosses, Trunk, reads the conditions of work in the processing plant to her.
"Employees are regularly exposed to toxic or caustic chemicals, and risk electrical shock and vibration. The noise can be unusually loud. You'll be required to stand for long periods at a time, walk, use your hands to finger, handle, feel, and reach into fish."
In many of these jobs, Tara is harassed by other fishermen, many uncouth and scarred, mostly men but also one woman. She defends herself honorably.
Then there are weather and water conditions with which to contend. A crewmate, Jethro, tells her how to deal with seasickness. "Transderm, Bonine, Rugby, and Psi accupressure bracelets. " He also recommends ginger.
Scouting around for a reasonably-priced home, Tara falls in love with a
moored 1944 WWII tugboat, which she hopes to buy from another woman, leading the reader to understand Tara intends to stay in her new home state.
The author has created a fairly well-rounded protagonist, but Tara seems to have few feminine characteristics except the ability to cook pies and cannolis, as her family in Philly ran a bakery. Her male side is strong, but not her female. Perhaps Keta, the sweet stray dog who adopts the young woman, brings out Tara’s softest side.
But Tara does fit in with the few other women--all tough--she meets. After being there a few months, she muses,
Tending bar, slinging coffee, or gaffing fish, women in Alaska carried themselves differently from women down south. As if each one of them had passed through a ring of fire before coming out the other side, flame-tested and hardened. The slag of the past burned off...
The most engaging characters are Connor, who somehow believes in Tara and doesn’t stray while she’s gone, and her fishing buddy, Newt, who is saving money to bring his girlfriend to his Sitka home and eventually, like others before him, loses an eye while working.
With incredible guts and stamina and the help of a few true friends, Tara gets most of what she wants, makes some smart decisions, and matures. However, a couple of major events and decisions seem under-explained. What does Tara think of the dog?
What does she think of her future with the tugboat? Even at the book’s conclusion, she does not always think of the consequences of these relationships and her decisions.
Warning: For those sensitive to the treatment of animals other than human, thousands of fish and crabs are killed in the novel, and the futures of a teary-eyed cat and a homeless mutt lie in the balance.
Brendan Jones lives on a tugboat in Sitka, Alaska, where he has been a reporter, a commercial fisherman, and a carpenter. This is his first novel.