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Anna, Washing

Reviewed: October 1, 2008
By: Ted Genoways
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
67 pages, $16.95

Ted Genoways was travelling in Alaska in 1996, the first of the Klondike Centennial Years, when he stopped in Eagle, that haven of disaffected and unsuccessful stampeders who didn’t want to live in Canada, and came across the story of Anna Malm. Like a number of women who came north during the gold rush, Anna made her living in more domestic pursuits and, using the 80 pound washing machine that she had packed over the Chilkoot (as we learn on page 47), she became Eagle’s first laundress.

Genoways was inspired by this passage from Elva Scott’s Historic Eagle and Its People, where she writes: "One of the smallest businesses in early Eagle, Alaska, could have been Anna Malm's Arctic Laundry. Anna, and her husband, Abe, were from Finland. Though they spoke little English, they decided to seek out their fortune in the northern gold fields, mushing in over the Chilkoot Trail. Though Anna was 54 years old at that time, she packed her load on her back the same as her husband, who was 19 years younger. Anna had raised Abe and then married him."

Further research apparently unearthed the facts that Abe was an obsessive gold seeker who rarely found any, that he predeceased Anna, and that she was joined in Eagle by her widowed sister, Marie, who also died there.

Poetry is sometimes thought of as a sort of compressed writing. While book length narrative poems were set down centuries before either prose novels or short stories became common, it is not usual these days to find a narrative poem sequence, let alone one composed of some five dozen sonnets. Anna, Washing, is essentially a novel in verse, relating the highlights of Anna’s life. Most of the poems are from Anna’s point of view, though related by an observer, but some are personal, some are letters, and some are Abe’s.

Reading these I was reminded of a comment made by a character in Madeleine L’Engle’s fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time. The thrust of the comment was that while the sonnet is a very restrictive format in some ways, once you’ve mastered the form it can be about anything.

That’s what has happened here. The book is in four main sections, with a prologue at the beginning, an interlude in the middle and an epilogue at the end. Part one is mostly about the trip and about getting established in Eagle. On arriving in Dawson Anna had decided “If all claims be staked,/ I’ll settle for the sliver in their pockets.” Her husband was not to be denied his search: “Abe’s lifeline leads downstream.”

Between her hard work, his obsession and the nineteen year gap in their ages, it seems that this was not a union made in heaven. It lasted till death them did part, but was probably never wholly satisfying to either of them.

Part two deals mainly with the Smallpox Epidemic of 1911 and is mostly from Abe’s perspective. He is the man tasked to burn the bodies of the dead and all their possessions, in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. Within two years he himself is gone, taken by cancer.

Part three begins with reflections on loneliness, but evolves into a series of letters to her sister, which continue on into part four until Marie comes to live with her. Described as a “blank woman” Marie never seems to develop a personality, yet she and Anna live together a dozen years and apparently pass on within months of each other in 1932. Anna, adrift in the delirium of her final illness, is aware of the men outside digging into the hard October soil to ready her grave.

“On Anna’s wall their shadows / move shapeless as aurora - cloud spirits, / like two ghost-white dresses in her closet.”

The last word is Abe’s, seeming to come from beyond the grave.

“There are no grubstakes in heaven, no one / to hazard his pickaxe on a dead man...”

Reflecting on his gold fever, he tries to explain it to her one last time.

“... but had you once - just once - seen a star blaze / from the night-hollow of your own gold pan / you’d know why, come spring, I grubbed out again.”

Don’t let ther poetry scare you. There’s an interesting story here and a couple of engaging characters - and it only takes a few hours to read.

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