Around here the land swallows things. In 1910, 96 people died when an avalanche swept two trains down the side of Windy Mountain just west of Stevens Pass and into the Tye River below. The trains, on the final stretch of a new transcontinental route from St. Paul to Seattle, had been stranded for a week already, the tracks west buried in 35 feet of snow and telegraph lines down, no communication with the outside world. In the days following the disaster, rail workers dug out the trains and loaded bodies onto toboggans. The dead moved down the Skykomish Valley by sled to the sea.
In 1929 the Great Northern Railroad completed a new tunnel under Stevens Pass that kept trains off the steeper, avalanche-prone slopes of the upper Windy Mountain route. An almost eight-mile stretch, it’s the longest train tunnel in the country. It’s still used today, by Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and still dangerous: a complicated cooling system maintains ventilation through the tunnel, but train hoppers avoid it. Better to hitchhike over the pass than risk asphyxiation in that long, dark void.
Wakkanai (pop. 33,869) is Japan’s northernmost city. On a clear day, its residents can look across the La Perouse Strait to the Russian island of Sakhalin, which was a Japanese prefecture until the closing days of World War II. The city was a smuggling hub during the immediate post-war years, when movement between Sakhalin and Japan was forbidden, and smuggling resumed during the bubble era, when little of the seafood offloaded in Wakkanai had been caught legally. When I visited for the first time in 2011, two weeks before the Fukushima earthquake, Wakkanai was a city of colorful memories and little to boast about.
The mayor at the time was Yokota Koichi. Funding had been secured to build a new train station and transit hub in the city’s historic downtown, and Yokota proposed that multiple floors of the station building could be reserved for a nursing home. It’s difficult to overstate the symbolic importance of a Japanese rail hub to the commerce of the surrounding area; using it to house the elderly struck many Wakkanai residents as an attempt to “surrender to the future” instead of confronting it.
When we observe our loved ones sleeping, old or young, human or pet, we are instinctively drawn to their breath. There is something essential in it we are all attuned to, something we both automatically and unconsciously equate with life. Each time we check on each other, we are validating the words of the Roman philosopher Cicero, dum spiro, spero, “As I breathe, I hope.”
Artists, she declares, are “people whose work it is to make something out of nothing”. True, writers are conjurers, performing feats of legerdemain with words; but there is hard work in what they do, and the proud outcome is something made, the product of craft. A sentence by Didion, whether it sticks to 39 characters or articulates possibilities in multiple dependent clauses, is always a marvel of magical thinking.
This is one of many mundane lessons that M, our narrator, learns in her unconventional education as a traveling salesman. In readers are thrown into a child’s perspective as she eschews traditional learning in order to make a living with her father on the road. A world of tools and hardware catalogs lends itself to new relationships, unearthed secrets, and a coming-of-age story no one quite expected. This sparse, quiet novel is itself a collection of parts. Not quite a novel, far from a collection of stories, more disparate vignettes than anything else. At times, these feel incomplete. Parts without their fittings.
Matty’s ambivalence and yearning, and the book-long search for answers and security, combine to make Skin a thoughtful read.