The Seal Wife

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In prose as stark and austere as the Alaskan landscape, Kathryn Harrison weaves a tightly told tale of obsession and desire in The Seal Wife.

In 1915, meteorologist Bigelow Green travels to Anchorage, Alaska, and establishes an observatory to transmit forecasts to Washington, DC. Located on the edge of the frontier, Anchorage is a rough-and-tumble town where men outnumber women. Bigelow is a shy, cerebral, and an intense young man who feels out of place in his rude surroundings. His loneliness is assuaged when he falls in love with an Aleut woman who never speaks. They spend time together engaged in passionate sex and quotidian tasks, such as skinning animals, cooking, and sewing. Apart from the Aleut woman, Bigelow has one other passion. He is determined to build a kite that will carry weather instruments into the atmosphere to record temperature readings.

One day when Bigelow pays his usual visit to the Aleut, he finds her cabin deserted. Her disappearance shatters him, and he transfers his obsessive attentions to Miriam Getz, the equally silent daughter of a local shopkeeper. Miriam can sing, but she cannot—or will not—speak because she stutters. Miriam and her father conspire to trick Bigelow into marrying her, but he is unable to forget the Aleut woman. Finally, the Aleut returns. She and Bigelow reunite and resume their relationship.

Although the title of the novel alludes to the selkie of Celtic legend, the Aleut woman is more reminiscent of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea. In pairing a scientist with a nature goddess, Harrison creates an underlying subtext that offers a hopeful vision of western culture that someday will work in harmony with the environment.