Northern Exposure

What is the place of the “North” in the American imagination? We picture astonishing panoramas, animals loping across the tundra. Or we read in the news of a conflicted economy: the poor families in far-flung settlements, the rich oil reservoirs beneath the snow. The North is a place that is documented but not conquered, and for most Americans it remains wild and imaginary.

To explain Alaska, Mattox Roesch speaks through Cesar. Forged where cultures converge, Cesar is the ideal American voice, an America-in-miniature. Yet his perspective is qualified by a misspent boyhood. In a sense, Cesar’s recklessness frees him from the burden of the American dream: despite bad grades and drunken school nights, he “knew what [teachers] didn’t believe—that it would eventually work out, somehow.”

This alters the way Cesar sees the world. Certainly his version of Alaska incorporates all the things we have long imagined about the North, the concepts of wilderness, poverty, a culture of solitude. But he looks at his new home without prejudice or expectation; he’s simply “waiting to find out,” as his cousin puts it. Through his narrator, Mattox Roesch suggests something about this modern era—that a new American perspective is possible. Post-race, post-high school, post-hometown, what does it mean to grow up in this country?

—Jake Keyes

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