Still Points North
by Leigh Newman
The Dial Press
Many children grow up with divorced parents, but few divide their time between attending private school in Baltimore and wandering through the wilds of the Alaskan bush. But for Oprah.com deputy editor Leigh Newman, the complex navigation of these two worlds was the norm. In her debut memoir, Still Points North (The Dial Press), Newman recounts with poignancy and captivating detail the pain of a familial division and the subsequent ripples that echoed throughout her life.
Oscillating between adulthood and the beautifully remembered sensory details of childhood, Newman places the reader in scenes beside her. Some of her most vivid recollections are of a young girl after the divorce spending time with her father, a surgeon. “The Great Alaskan Dad flies his plane on floats in the summer and on skis in the winter. He hunts for caribou, moose, wild sheep, wild goats, geese, and ducks, plus fishes for halibut, salmon and trout. . .” Together, they take weekend jaunts to the bush on his four-seat Cessna 185, fish for salmon, and try to avoid grizzlies. At home, they don’t talk much about the divorce. “Back across the inlet, on the deck of the house, Dad and I have plenty of visceral truths to confront. In the form of: mealy, mushy, gray-tinged, barbequed humpy. A fine steam rises off the fish, smelling the way it soon will taste in our mouths—like a riverbank, after a school of dead fish washes up in the mud. We shake on salt. . . We gulp our Frescas. We stare down at our plates. Then, we look up at the sky, as though a rare trumpeter swan has just flown by.”
Facing the wilderness of Alaska helped to shape with the wildness within, allowing Newman to fit in everywhere, yet feel at home nowhere—a particularly useful skill for when she was a young travel writer traversing the globe. While reporting about the world’s most prestigious ballet troupe in St. Petersburg, complete with Russian Mafia bouncers, model-esque ballerinas and subzero temperatures, Newman realizes the disconnect between her worlds—both inner and outer– has caused a kind of isolation she carries inside everywhere. “The Alaska face was different from the Baltimore one. The Alaska face was openly happy. . . And it was a lot harder, it took a lot more effort, because it used to belong to me. It used to be my real face.”
It would take nearly another decade, numerous globe-trotting adventures, countless trials and attempts to fit in, and finally meeting her husband Lawrence before Newman’s life would again be reinvented. “Sometimes, there’s a story underneath the words. . . and in my small, inglorious experience, regardless of how it ends, regardless of every indication that seems so emphatically to contradict it, that story is almost always a love story.”
Newman’s prose is infused with sensory details, which makes it that much more effective. The scent of fish caught minutes before, the whirring sound of the plane her father flies just as the motor cuts out, the beams of sun falling across her dying grandmother’s bed all highlight the emotional complexity that hovers just beneath the surface. Her interactions with her family rarely are portrayed as simple, but reveal that those closest to us strike the sharpest nerve and reach into the deepest heart.
Additionally, it is readily apparent that Newman is recounting an ultimately circuitous inner journey by traversing the globe. Though she gathers souvenirs of experience over the years, there is a sense that her real voyage has been one of casting off despair and loneliness in favor of a sense of self, identity, and contentment. It wasn’t until she had started to establish her own family that these seeds fully began to flourish. For Newman, “home” is not a destination, but a journey.