In Dave Eggers' Latest, A Mother Moves Her Kids To The Alaskan 'Frontier'
Since his debut novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers has finessed a line between fact and fiction. His latest, Heroes of the Frontier, is a novel about a dentist who, after a bad breakup, packs up and moves to Alaska with her two young children.
Alaska is "a working state" that's "not too precious about itself," Eggers tells NPR's Scott Simon. "It's still very raw and there's still so much of it that you can discover, and be alone."
Josie's not really an "outdoors person," Eggers says, "but she finds herself increasingly connected to some past, real or imagined, of an America that was full of pioneers and adventurers."
On his protagonist hitting hard times
Josie's had sort of an avalanche of bad luck in the last few years before her trip — including the dissolution of her union with the father of her kids, a guy named Carl. Also, she's a dentist and she's just had to give up her practice. She was sued for malpractice [by] a woman who had contracted cancer of the mouth and Josie hadn't spotted it. So she's lost her practice, lost her union with Carl and she's sort of being chased by demons real and imagined and she wants to get as far away as possible. And she chooses Alaska.
On why he made Josie a dentist
I like protagonists with occupations that are common and important and vital to the community, but you don't see them that much in fiction. And so I happened to know some really fascinating dentists and I've had a few friends from college who became dentists.
My kids go to a dentist who, on the side, he funds documentaries that challenge the Koch brothers — and he'll talk your ear off. You know, you go in for a filling but you're there for two hours and you've gone through the history of the civil rights movement and he was there every step of the way. So he was one of my inspirations for making this fully rounded and fully human character who happens to be a dentist.
On whether Josie is running away
I think that we have an aversion sometimes to leaving ... there's this trope of: You're running away from your problems. In her case, she started, for sure, running away from her problems. But at the same time, what's the alternative sometimes? Is it to stay in the same town all of your life? Does that qualify as the best self and the best life you can lead? Not necessarily. For her, what started as a very random and ill-planned trip turns into, I think — she finds a new, stronger, braver version of herself.
On Josie's kids
I think that because they have to meet challenge after challenge and they keep rising to that challenge, she is in awe, I think, of who they become when they're given a chance, and given problems to solve and [given] some independence. There's nothing more astonishing to see [than] a child coming into their sense of agency, and bravery, and displaying courage on a daily basis. And watching their discovery in the outdoors. I wanted Josie to experience all that.
On what Josie means when she says we are "not civilized people"
Part of the book is examining who we are as Americans. I think we are a really interesting race. I don't think we are completely civilized. I think we accept a level of violence on a daily basis that is astounding to much of the rest of the world. And every so often we are woken out of our state of amnesia. In so many ways we are capable of great things, and we live in a supposedly industrialized, civilized place, but we have an element of the frontier barbarism that's still in our blood and we accept it.
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