The Sea Runners Background Notes
fiction sired by history
The Sea Runners, my first novel and the first fiction of any kind that I had ever written, came to me from two anchoring scenes of history, like hands measuring a breadth:
"Last Sunday"—the 16th of January, 1853, near Astoria, Oregon—"as some of the settlers were crossing the bay, they found, drifting in a canoe, three men nearly starved to death..."
Six weeks before, four men had crept from the fort at Sitka, Alaska, headquarters of the Russian-American fur-trading company. Having signed on from their native Sweden for seven years' service at Sitka, the four chose to escape from their indenturement with the Russian frontier regime. All they knew of their chosen destination, the American fur-trading post at Astoria, was its direction, south along the wild coast of Alaska and British Columbia, and its means, an eighteen-foot Indian canoe they managed to steal.
What stretched between those historical scenes, a desperate voyage of a thousand miles in North Pacific winter and through the waters of the premier seagoing Indian tribes of the world, existed as one skinny newspaper item, reported to the Oregon Weekly Times by one of the settlers who stumbled across the trio of survivors. (The newspaper item, on dim microfilm, I stumbled across while doing research for my non-fiction book Winter Brothers. I let imagination take over, and after traveling the Alaska and British Columbia coastline to see the route of the escape, I had my cast of characters invented:
- Melander, the planner, who puts together the escape as if piecing out a chess problem.
- Karlsson, his first, carefully-chosen, accomplice; a skilled canoeman and frontiersman, he joins the escape mostly from curiosity, to see whether the deed can be done.
- Braaf, Melander's second selection, is a thief, chosen for precisely that reason; bored to his fingertips by Sitka life, he leaps at the chance to pilfer the supplies needed for the canoe journey.
- Wennberg, the last to join, is the wild card flicked into the escape scheme, a clever and dangerous blacksmith who forces his way into the plan.
There, then, they were, to be written across two years into what I knew had to be a novel of considerable compression, with the focus always on the actions of these men as they try to cope with ocean, wilderness, and each other. John Berryman once wrote that a mark of modernity is that a person can now live his or her life without ever having the chance to know whether he or she is physically brave. Daily, these sea runners are whetted against that question.