A fresh debut novel about a lost, fierce young woman who finds her way to Alaska and finds herself through the hard work of fishing, as far as the icy Bering Sea
In waters as far and icy as the Bering Sea, a fierce, lost young woman finds herself through the hard work of fishing and the stubborn love of real friendship.
Tara Marconi has made her way from Philly to “the Rock,” a remote island in Alaska governed by the seasons. Her mother’s death left her unmoored, with a seemingly impassable rift between her and her father. But in this majestic, rugged frontier she works her way up the commercial fishing ladder—from hatchery assistant all the way to king crabber. Disciplined from years as a young boxer, she learns anew what it means to work, to connect, and—through an unlikely old tugboat — how to make a home she knows is her own.
A testament to the places that shape us and the places that change us, The Alaskan Laundry tells one woman’s unforgettable journey back to the possibility of love.
Whenever a bunch of fellows would get together, someone would start talking about going up north .?.?. Things were pretty much settled to the south of us. We didn’t seem to be ready for steady jobs. It was only natural we’d start talking about the north. We bought out the Russians. We’d built canneries up there. The fellows who hadn’t been up was hankering to go. The rest of us was hankering to go back.
— Martha McKeown, The Trail Led North
There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.
— Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table
The captain’s voice echoed off the mountainside. “Port Anna. The town of Port Anna, twenty minutes. All passengers exit through the car deck.”
She watched off the left rail of the ferry — port, starboard, whatever. Bleached driftwood and tangles of seaweed were strewn across the beach. Above the sand, trees carpeted the mountains up to the craggy peaks.
She squinted, but couldn’t make out much in the thickening fog, just clouds caught in hazy wisps among the treetops. Shouldn’t there be factories on the outskirts of town? Suburbs? The air smelled piney, faintly citrus.
She punched her sleeping bag into its sack, tossing salami ends and scraps from her meals during the last four days into the trash. With her thumbnail she chipped duct tape from the cement deck where she had camped. The bottom of the tent was still wet from the first night on the boat, when she had woken to the crack of the rainfly, shiver of the ferry as waves slammed into the hull. Huddled in her sleeping bag, nylon walls contracting and expanding around her like a lung, she had been certain the duct tape lashing down her tent would give. She’d be trapped in a sail, skittering across the ocean, never to be seen again.
When she finally gathered the courage to step out, as the sky began to lighten, a wave streaked with foam reared up in front of her like some nightmarish opponent, before slapping down, sending salt spray over her cheeks. She spent the next three nights sleeping on a chair beneath the solarium heat lamps, reveling in the warmth.
The ferry heaved toward a break in the trees, threading two islands, crescent sweeps of ash-colored beach on either side, faint outlines of mountains beyond. The ocean so calm, the light dimming. Since boarding the ferry she had spoken to no one, feeling like a ghost among the passengers. That’s how it had been since she left Philly, as if her vital organs continued to function while her mind traveled elsewhere, into some alternate universe, the laws of which she could not explain. Moving farther and farther from her body.
She zipped her duffel and returned to her spot. A tall man with a white beard and a weathered face, eyes the color of Pennsylvania bluestone, settled beside her.
“The Rock home for you?” he asked, gripping the railing. h-a-r-d-w-o-r-k was tattooed over scabbed, swollen knuckles. She caught a whiff of oil, and something else, maybe alcohol.
“You mean Archangel Island?”
“The Rock, that’s what we call it. A fifty-mile-long, fifteen-mile-wide slab of rock. You’re lookin’ at the northern tip of it right now, with Port Anna just around the bend.”
“I’m from Philly,” she announced. Her throat felt sandpapery after so long without speaking.
“Yeah, I woulda noticed if you’d been around.” He stepped back from the railing, stretching his sinewy arms. “Philadelphia. Capital of America. I got that right?”
The wrinkles etched into his cheeks didn’t deepen. She couldn’t tell if he was joking.
He set a palm into the rain, breaking into a jagged smile. “Liquid sunshine. Welcome home, friend. That’s what we say to folks from the lower forty-eight when it looks like they might stick around.”
“I guess I’ll see you,” she said, shouldering her duffel.
“For sure. Petree Bangheart.” He set out a hand.
“Tara,” she said, shaking it.
As she moved toward the car deck she thought how nice it was that someone might think this island could become her home, instead of the brick and mortar houses built above the crumbling Wissahickon schist curbs of South Philadelphia. 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 Saint 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.
From the protected lower level of the ferry she watched as a broad wooden dock resolved through the mist. Workers tossed ropes as the boat drifted, easing them up to the moorings. Cars were lined up beside a low-slung building in the middle of a parking lot, clouds of exhaust rising from the tailpipes.
She patted her coat, wet with rain. In the pocket was just under two thousand dollars, most of it tip money after a summer scooping water ice at John’s, bills still sticky from the cherry and lemon syrup. (She never earned a dime working at the family bakery. A roof and food was pay enough, her father reasoned. Cheap bastard.)
She scanned the coast. She had envisioned Alaska lush and open, wide-skied and dramatic. This world of narrow passageways and forests that seemed to swallow the light felt like some different planet. Where was the spire of the Russian church Acuzio had described? The volcano looming over town? Cabins with smoke curling out of the chimney?
Inside a ferry attendant unhooked a chain, and passengers filed downstairs to the car deck. The steel ramp leading up from the boat jolted as vehicles drove off. She joined a few pedestrians crossing the parking lot to the terminal, where people waited in dulled raingear. One girl, overweight, with small glasses, wearing a pink waterlogged fleece, wet hair plastered to her cheeks, stared vacantly ahead. No one spoke. Her new boss had told her when she called him from a payphone in Ketchikan that he’d meet her here. “Just one boat a week,” he had said in a gruff voice.
Afraid that he might have forgotten, she started toward the terminal. She thought of a game Connor loved to play, insisting that she choose one word to describe her state of mind. (Her feelings changed with the weather, while his were so annoyingly consistent.) With this army surplus duffel packed with the damp tent and sleeping bag, and her ponytail pulled through her Eagles cap, she’d chosen “homeless.” But homeless with a plan.
As she opened the glass door of the terminal a potbellied man dressed in stained work jeans held up by faded rainbow suspenders elbowed his way out. His brown boots, extending from the frayed cuffs of his pants, appeared clownish. She was about to say that God gave him arms so he could open doors by his own goddamn self when he held out a meaty palm.
Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
"The relationships portrayed in this debut novel draw you in with their honesty, and Tara is a courageous, vibrant narrator...Jones' big-hearted, generous prose invite you into the sometimes thrilling, often grueling way of life in this last American wilderness." — Oprah.com
"A stunning literary debut."—Outside Magazine
"This book's got everything. A lady boxer from South Philly travels to Alaska and buys a World War II-vintage fishing boat. Of course she does! And this is written by a guy who lives on a fishing boat up there."—The Philadelphia Inquirer, "14 books worth checking out this summer"
"Remarkable...It's a story of well-crafted characters, entirely believable drama and redemption through excruciatingly hard labor...Jones perfectly evokes the culture of Southeast Alaska and those working in fisheries...Jones has captured what Alaska has long been for so many people: a last and best chance to remake their lives and become what they could never have been any place else. It may be fiction, but the story he tells is real."—Alaska Dispatch News
"Tara Marconi has made her way to 'The Rock,' a remote island in Alaska governed by the seasons and the demands of the world of commercial fishing. She hasn’t felt at home in a long while?her mother’s death left her unmoored and created a seemingly insurmountable rift between her and her father. But in majestic and mysterious Alaska, she begins to work her way up the fishing ladder?from hatchery assistant all the way to king crabber. Disciplined from years as a boxer in Philadelphia, here she truly learns what it means to work and to connect. And in buying and fixing up an old tugboat, she learns how to make a home that is her own." —Library Journal
"Debut novelist Jones draws on his real-life experience living and working on an Alaskan tugboat to craft the tale of Tara Marconi, a Philadelphia woman who runs away from the depression and anger that have taken over her life. Desperate for a change, Tara leaves boxing, her family bakery, a deceased mother, a rage-filled father, and a boyfriend with hurt feelings for a foreign landscape where the men come with guns and questionable senses of humor. She arrives with anger "hot in her chest" and feels, "at the far end of the flame's heat, something new. Quieter, reassuring." She's committed to working for one year at a hatchery on Archangel Island, Alaska, also known as "The Rock" because that's what it is—a 15-by-50-mile stretch of rock that reeks of dead fish. After a late start on her first day and learning that her training as a boxer is no preparation for the hard work she's taken on, Tara starts to feel confident and comfortable in her new environment—so much so that a tugboat for sale catches her eye. Once the first year at The Rock passes successfully, it's clear that Tara is not ready to leave Alaska. By allowing herself to be vulnerable, she builds and rebuilds relationships, setting herself up to heal past wounds. The novel is a long collection of short chapters, which amplifies the step-by-step nature of Tara's hard-earned personal and professional accomplishments. The compelling tale of a woman's journey from hopeless anger to genuine empowerment, made richer by its immersion in the world of commercial fishing."—Kirkus Reviews
"This is a truly towering debut novel. Brendan Jones charts new novelistic territory and sends back moving dispatches from the frontiers of the human heart." — Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son
“This book will pick you up from wherever you are and transport you to Sitka, Alaska; drop you in the hurl of its waves, winds, and weather; educate you in its secret language and slant codes of conduct; introduce you to a cast of characters you don't meet anywhere but the Great North. More importantly, maybe, it will re-convince you of the power of wilderness to heal a human heart.”—Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted, Cowboys Are My Weakness, and others
"This novel is a rarity -- a gripping, straight-forward, old-fashioned novel about coming of age (a woman, no less) in Alaska. It is reminiscent of the best of Wallace Stegner."—Richard Ford
"The Alaskan Laundry is a gorgeous and powerful novel that succeeds both as a page-turning adventure story and an evocative exploration of the meaning of home. With acute psychological precision and a naturalist's attention to detail, Brendan Jones has created a hauntingly beautiful novel that will stay with me for a long time." – Molly Antopol, author of The Unamericans
“A taut, page-turning narrative, an indomitable heroine, and a rich cast of characters—all steeped in a world where you can smell the tang of kelp at low tide, feel the creak of seiners at their moorings, hear the rustling of the Southeast Alaska rain forest. The Alaskan Laundry plunges the reader into the heart and soul of a unique commercial fishing culture and the story of Tara Marconi, as she struggles for respect, love, inner peace, and a place to call her own. A cinematic tour de force, it offers up an empowering message of hope and resilience.”—Nick Jans, author of A Wolf Called Romeo
"There are the easy journeys, the ones that take us where we mean to travel, and there are those we shy from, the dark and uncertain treks of the soul. Without flinching, nineteen-year-old Tara ventures from South Philly to the male-dominated “Rock,” an island off the coast of Alaska. True to her boxer instincts, Tara comes out swinging, unsure what the island will make of her. As layers of her former life wash away, she proves as raw and tender as the landscape, as striking and unforgettable. A promising debut, true to the core — a novel of grit and redemption." — Deb Vanasse, author of Cold Spell and Out of the Wilderness
"The Alaskan Laundry is a novel of bracing air that gets deep into your lungs. As Tara Marconi reinvents herself in Alaska, we see all facets of the American dream of self-reliance and boundless possibility play out on the stage of the Last Frontier. A strong, singular person grows in these pages. Like a protagonist in a Daniel Woodrell novel, she is stubborn, heroic, and capable of anything." — Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall
"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."—Curled Up
"A fresh voice in contemporary realism arrives on the scene in this coming-of-age novel. Fierce and flawed, protagonist Tara Marconi leaves the Lower 48 behind to cut her teeth on the Alaskan wilderness, searching for salvation in the notion that 'people come to Alaska to wash themselves clean.' Jones's dynamic love of America'...
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