Over the course of the last 45 years, Juneau author, contractor and fisherman Eric Forrer has published a novel (“From the Nets of a Salmon Fisherman” with Doubleday, in 1973), and a children’s book (“Bucket,” illustrated by his mother and published in 1985). With his third and newest work, “Colors of the Morning Sky,” published with McRoy & Blackburn of Ester, Alaska, he enters the genre of the novella.
Novellas — stories that are shorter than a novel and longer than a short story — can be difficult to place. But in his partnership with Juneau artist Lue K. Isaac, who illustrated the book with beautiful paintings and drawings, Forrer expands the form’s typical possibilities.
Over the last 45 years, Forrer has also been busy doing other things: commercial fishing and carpentry, at which he made a living until retiring recently. Those worlds informed the narrative of “Colors of the Morning Sky,” the fictional autobiography of a captain who makes an “extraordinary haul” while out fishing. It’s a haul that changes the captain’s life just as it’s nearing its end.
Forrer’s first book, written in his early twenties, was drawn from his own life. He moved to Alaska from the Mexican border in the early 1960s, when he was 15 years old. His parents taught for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which then managed education for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and moved to Alakunuk, near Bethel, less than 20 miles from the Bering Sea.
It was, he said, “a perfect age” to first experience the state.
“I was aware of stuff, and I was looking at the world not as a really young child, and not as an adult confirmed in their ways. I said, ‘Got it. I’m in.’”
He commercial fished in the interior as a teenager. After graduating high school, “I… made an attempt at college, and that failed,” he said. “I just had a classic bush kid’s inability to make the leap from an extremely rural culture to an extremely urban, intellectual culture… that’s a big step, and it plagues education in Alaska to this day.”
He moved to Juneau in 1978, after several years in Fairbanks, and has been here ever since, he said.
At first, he said, it was hard to transition to salmon fishing in Southeast, after growing up with set netting on the Yukon.
“It was the drift net fishery, and I was just horrified by it,” he said. “You were awake all the time. And it was hard.”
He found his groove long-lining for halibut. At the same time, he was making his way up in the world of carpentry, from “dogsbody” (on the bottom rung) at the beginning of his career, to licensed general contractor by the time he retired.
“It was kind of Alaska magic,” he said. “I don’t think it would have worked anywhere else.”
Jesus was a seiner
It’s an overheard remark from a Petersburg fisherman that may have been the genesis of “Colors of the Morning Sky”: Forrer once overheard a man say that Jesus was a seiner.
“I thought ‘What a brilliant remark. It’s just loaded with stuff,’” he remembered.
Forrer wrote the book, he said, from bits and pieces — nature descriptions, backgrounds — when he was living in a 22 foot RV in Juneau, building a house. The story is structured as a series of loosely chronological vignettes interspersed with Isaac’s drawings. All together, they tell the story of the Captain’s life, from childhood to old age — with a special focus on that “extraordinary haul” and the friendships that result. The Captain’s subtle humor is laced throughout it, as is his search for meaning and connection with others.
The way he wrote it, Forrer said, “I was sort of shooting for the genre that includes ‘A River Runs Through It. It’s short, it’s a family thing, the whole involvement of the church and the conflict with that kind of authority gives it quite a bit of emotional or spiritual substance… at some level, everyone has a battle with spiritual issues. This one is rough around the edges, but it’s quite real; it’s a struggle that everyone will recognize.”
Much of the novel, like “A River Runs Through It,” recalls biblical language. Forrer also consciously echoes works he admires (The first line, echoing “Moby-Dick,” is “Call me the Captain.”)
“One of the critical parts is the writing itself; the music in the language,” he said.
The Captain struggles with institutions, spirituality, and society. He accepts good people around him: a prostitute, for example, or a deckhand who realizes he is gay at a time gay people were widely ostracized — no matter how society might see them.
The result is the story of a fictional character many Southeast Alaskans might recognize: a spiritually striving, intelligent, independently educated, grumpy, subtly funny, big-hearted Southeast Alaskan fisherman.
Isaac said she’s been an avid reader her whole life, but this is the first book she’s illustrated.
“Eric just sort of found me,” she said.
At the time, she was the Juneau Artists Gallery’s featured artist for First Friday. Some mutual friends told Forrer he should come see her work.
“He did, and it was just magic,” she said.
Forrer remembered it similarly. “It was love at first sight,” he said of their working relationship.
After reading the book and being “charmed” by the story, together, the two of them decided what subject matter to illustrate and discussed the images as she created them.
“Some of them seemed like they wanted to be paintings to me, and some of them like they wanted to be more typical book illustrations,” Isaac said. “It’s a mix of media and technique.”
“In some respects, I did this book for myself, and I wanted to produce a really entertaining, pleasant volume, and Lue’s illustrations went a long way toward that,” Forrer said.
The result is a very Southeast Alaskan novella that’s a pleasure to read, as well as simply flip through and look at.
Find “Colors of the Morning Sky” at Hearthside Books, the Juneau Artists Gallery, and Amazon.
Excerpt by Eric Forrer
Southeast Alaska is a country that is all islands and channels, nooks and crannies, bits and pieces. Along the western and southern edges of the country are passages and channels that connect to a big ocean called the Gulf. In these ocean passes the currents and the winds flirt with each other and their endless horseplay creates dangerous and interesting turmoil. At the same place where the conditions are so bad that the United States Coast Pilot reports that under certain wind and tide conditions, “No small boat can survive,” birds weighing only a few ounces can be found floating on the waves, eating shrimpy bits stirred up by the turbulence below. This can make you aware of the importance of design.
The Gulf is a source of mystery and power. If the winds blow from the south, they bring clouds and mist and rain. If they blow from the west, they bring clear skies and sometimes the summer sun is so hot you can go swimming in shallow places in the otherwise frigid waters. On the eastern and northern boundaries of Southeastern Alaska is a fringe of mountains and beyond that a land called the Interior. Southeastern is its own preserve, and we think of the Interior as alien turf. The Interior is a source of desperately bad weather and crazy politicians. In winter the winds that blow off the Candian plateau will just flat freeze your ass off, full stop. Lynn Canal is a funnel from the north and a wind of 120 knots at sea level at Point Retreat is not unknown.
We were black-cod fishing, holed up in Funter one winter night, pretty much double tied to the dock, and a voice on the radio said “Anyone know the wind at Retreat?” and another voice said, “I have fifty knots across the deck.” The first voice said, “Oh, not too bad then.” Maybe they were big boats.
Winter snows come from the north, summer rains come from the south, clear skies and sunshine come from the west. Nothing at all worth talking about comes from the east, which is mostly a source of lousy weather, bad rumors, and dismal politics. The islands of the country are covered with a dark green forest. It is a masterpiece of tangles and open meadows, huge trees that sweep the sky and low brush that guards the paths and hides the animals. The forest sweeps over the cliffs and ridges, rolls up the valleys and stands right down to the very edge of the salt water. It presides like a sentinel over the land.
Fed by the snow and rain and guarded by the forest, every valley has a rushing river or a crystal stream. They start in alpine meadows, or pour over rocky ledges from the edge of lakes, and they connect the dark green forest to the salty sea.
In the heart of the country was a spot where the heavy forest, the ocean, and a rushing river made a nearly perfect triangle, and at the center of the triangle was a village. In the village was a three-room school, and occasionally a few kids took off at lunchtime and went down the beach, fooling around the edge of the forest and playing games of hide and seek. And one fall day with mixed rain showers and fleeting glimpses of the sun, one of the boys hid himself a little too well and a little too long and got separated from his friends.
The school bell rang clear in the fall air and when they went back to their classes, the boy in the forest was not exactly lost and not exactly sure of himself. He went along for a few minutes sort of buried in the blueberry bushes and suddenly the sunlight was pouring down through the trees and right ahead of him was an old forgotten totem pole. There was a frosting of silvery light on the moss on the old pole and it stood there all lit up with the dark green trees behind it.
• Mary Catharine Martin is the managing editor of the Capital City Weekly.