Heroes of the Frontier

by Dave Eggers
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916

Author: Dave Eggers (b. 1970)

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Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 400 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present

Locale: Alaska

Heroes of the Frontier is a novel by American author Dave Eggers about the importance of bravery that follows a dentist and her children as they travel across Alaska.

Principal characters

Josie, a dentist who has uprooted her life in Ohio to travel around Alaska in a motor homeCourtesy of Knopf

Paul, her older child, an intelligent and kind eight-year-old who is protective of his sister

Ana, her rambunctious five-year-old daughter

Carl, her former partner and the father of her children

As a novelist, Dave Eggers’s primary objective is to better understand the state of contemporary America. In his debut book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), he established his reputation as one of the nation’s most compelling storytellers by artfully blending autobiography with fiction to illustrate both the nature of twentieth-century American families and how young people were being shaped by mass-media culture. In his novel A Hologram for the King (2012), he depicts the pervasive dissatisfaction of the country’s middle class through the existential crisis of an American businessman named Alan Clay. Eggers continues this tradition of using fiction as a lens with which he can evaluate American culture in his novel Heroes of the Frontier (2016). Following a former dentist named Josie as she travels across Alaska with her two small children, the novel posits that in recent years, Americans have collectively lost their courage.

Josie, the protagonist of Heroes of the Frontier, is in many ways an embodiment of modern American disheartenment. When the novel begins, Josie has been so worn down by the endless challenges of her personal and professional life that she decides to escape to Alaska. Ostensibly, the purpose of this spontaneous trip to the north is for her and her children to visit her stepsister Sam, who resides in the city of Homer. However, the reality is that they are on an open-ended holiday; after being sued by a woman claiming that she did not detect her mouth cancer early enough, Josie has lost her dental practice and is no longer working. Furthermore, the father of her children, a handsome and perennially unemployed man named Carl, has just married another woman despite the fact that he refused to ever make such a commitment to Josie. Consequently, Josie’s retreat to Alaska is meant to bring both reprieve from the memories of loss that characterize her life in Ohio and a chance to gain some much-needed personal insight.

While the premise of a road trip as means to self-discovery is ubiquitous within American literature, Eggers ensures that Josie’s odyssey is an atypical one. This is primarily evident in the characters that Eggers chooses for Josie’s travel companions, which include her stoic eight-year-old son Paul and rambunctious five-year-old daughter Ana. While many classic road trip narratives, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), focus on the young, adventure-seeking male experience, Heroes of the Frontier examines the road from a mother’s perspective. The novel’s setting is also arguably uncommon for an American road trip tale. With the exception of a handful of flashbacks to their life in Ohio, the entirety of the story takes place in rural Alaska. As a result, Heroes of the Frontier does not operate with the purpose to examine the different pockets of culture that exist across the country. Instead, it is an insular story, one in which many of the conflicts that the protagonist faces are not with other people but with nature.

The Alaskan wilderness is representative of the pervasive threats and uncertainty of Josie’s life. In interviews, Eggers stated that he chose the backdrop of Alaska because it is still raw in a way that the rest of the United States is not. Additionally, he wanted Josie to be surrounded by steel-spined individuals who persevered against hardships on a daily basis. It is this toughness of the Alaskan people, as well as the challenges of the natural environment, that help foster Josie’s transformation. When she and her children first land in Anchorage she is, by her own definition, a coward. Not only is she running away from her problems in Ohio, but she also did not have the courage to ask Carl for his permission to bring their children essentially out of the country because she was worried he would refuse. In the first few days of their journey, a time spent driving aimlessly from site to site in an ancient RV ironically named “the Chateau,” Josie is trapped in a stagnant, fearful mindset. Subsequently, she drinks too much wine and ruminates about Carl, her lost career, and the death of a young man named Jeremy whom she encouraged to enlist in the marines.

Josie’s dwindling funds as well as her fear that Carl will find a way to take the children away cause her to act illogically, even dangerously. At one point on the journey, a process server approaches Josie and announces that she is being sued. Rather than reading the papers that she is being served, Josie flees with her children into the woods. Believing that the law is after her, she breaks into a ranger’s cabin by an abandoned silver mine. While they hide out there, Josie, Paul, and Ana learn to survive in the woods. They hike, forage, and drink water from a mountain stream. Despite the fact that she is putting herself and her children in danger, Josie’s questionable decisions ultimately embolden her. The more her family’s survival is challenged, the more she realizes that courage, in its simplest, purest form, is the act of pushing forward. Eggers illustrates this sentiment in a poignant scene when Josie, Paul, and Ana must seek shelter during a dangerous storm. As the elements become worse, Josie tells her children to run. As a result of their ability to soldier on, even amidst cuts and bruises, the three emerge as heroes.

Eggers’s depiction of Paul and Ana is strikingly unique. Where many authors typically write characters under the age of ten as one-dimensional beings that either drive or obstruct the adult protagonists’ goals, Eggers presents Paul and Ana as individuals with their own thoughts and fears. In part, his decision to portray them as multidimensional supporting characters is because the narrative, although written in third person, is told from Josie’s point of view. As a mother, she is naturally in awe of her children’s energy, intelligence, and spirit. Paul, who she describes as having “ice-priest eyes,” is observant and kind and often better at getting his little sister to behave than his mother is. Meanwhile, Ana is wild, a source of craziness who has a knack for breaking things and getting hurt. Despite their young ages, it is often Paul and Ana’s actions that move the story forward. This is because as a single parent, Josie treats her children more like collaborators than wards. They are all members of a family unit who have no choice but to work together to make the best out of the collective challenges they face. While some may find Josie’s egalitarian treatment of her children to be poor parenting, it ultimately makes for more interesting storytelling to have the family members operate in many ways as equals, each enhanced with rich characterization.

The stray dogs that continually reappear across the Alaskan landscape in Heroes of the Frontier are arguably a reflection of the state that Josie and her family are in. Like the dogs, they are wild, displaced creatures trying to survive the best they can with the little resources available. Paul, the most sensitive member of the family, worries about the fate of the dogs. Knowing that her son will lose sleep over the matter, Josie lies and tells him that they live in a castle. It is a lie that parallels the larger lie she propagates to her children on a daily basis: that the way in which they are spending their time in Alaska is part of her plan to have fun as a family. In reality, Josie’s decisions are almost exclusively spontaneous and reactive. In addition to representing the family, the stray dog motif exemplifies the skill and visual nature of Eggers’s literary style. Throughout Heroes of the Frontier, Eggers’s writing can be described as both poetic and allegorical.

Reviews of Heroes of the Frontier were mostly positive, if not with the same degree of acclaim that met A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Writing for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani argued that the novel is “absorbing if haphazard.” For Kakutani and a number of other critics, it is the relationship between Josie and her children that constitutes the most affecting part of the narrative. In his review for the Guardian, Alex Preston wrote, “Josie’s children are the counterweight to all this unhappiness, and form the emotional and comic centre of the novel.” Had the novel been exclusively about a woman reflecting on failure, the tone would have been much darker. In turn, it would likely have been significantly less enjoyable to read. However, by leveraging the comedy and energy of Josie’s two young children, Eggers injects the narrative with enough levity to explore other, more interesting themes.

Eggers has also been praised for his ability to capture the universality of Josie’s existential struggle. Despite the fact that Josie is ostensibly a criminal, as she has fled the country with her children without their father’s permission, Eggers rarely vilifies her—even when her aimlessness puts them all in danger. As many people are especially quick to criticize women who act recklessly, Eggers’s perspective is unique. He examines Josie primarily as a person who, like everyone else, is flawed in some way. By presenting her parenting decisions as being rooted in good intentions, Eggers ensures that the narrative continues to align to the theme of reclaiming one’s bravery. While reflecting on this aspect of the story, Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Josie is “driven by a nagging, restless dissatisfaction—one that’s very human.”

Ultimately, Heroes of the Frontier is a highly enjoyable read. In addition to Eggers’s lyrical prose and engaging storytelling, the novel presents thought-provoking themes and questions. Unafraid to criticize Americans for being complacent in the face of misery and hardship, Eggers leverages Josie’s journey as a call to action for his readers, urging them to soldier on like his complex characters. Americans must learn to emulate the grit of their ancestors who, like Alaskans today, were courageous enough to settle the frontier. Such courage, Eggers concludes, is a quality necessary to both survive tragedies and make the most out of everyday life.

Review Sources

  • Kakutani, Michiko. Review of Heroes of the Frontier, by Dave Eggers. The New York Times, 17 July 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/07/18/books/review-dave-eggerss-new-novel-heroes-of-the-frontier.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016.
  • Kellogg, Carolyn. “North to Alaska in Dave Eggers’ new Heroes of the Frontier.” Review of Heroes of the Frontier,by Dave Eggers. Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2016, www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-eggers-frontier-20160711-snap-story.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016.
  • Preston, Alex. “Heroes of the Frontier Review—Dave Eggers Finds Utopia in Alaska.” Review of Heroes of the Frontier, by Dave Eggers. The Guardian, 17 July 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/17/heroes-of-the-frontier-dave-eggers-review-utopianism. Accessed 4 Nov. 2016.

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