The protagonist of Dave Eggers’ new novel, Heroes of the Frontier, is hardly a model of parental rectitude: She abandons her home and dental practice in Ohio to traverse Alaska in a rickety RV with her two children. Starting from this dubious premise, Eggers weaves an engaging story of second chances and the fierce beauty of maternal love.
Approaching age 40, Josie is haunted by a malpractice case filed by a former patient whose litigious son-in-law claims she missed evidence of an oral cancer in a routine dental examination. Her guilt over that incident is surpassed only by the anguish she feels over the death of another patient, a young Marine who was killed in Afghanistan.
While Josie’s tenuous hold on rationality propels the novel, Eggers gives her a pair of appealing traveling companions. Her 8-year-old son, Peter, is “far more reasonable and kind and wise than his mother,” personality traits that come in handy for dealing with his 5-year-old sister, Ana, who’s “tuned to a different galactic frequency.” Both children demonstrate remarkable resilience, resigning themselves to the fact that there’s “no longer any logical pattern to their lives.”
This tiny crew navigates a craft north from Anchorage, on Alaska’s highways and back roads. Along the way, they take in a magic show on a cruise ship, meet a veteran of one of America’s lesser-known conflicts—the invasion of Grenada—and live in a cottage on the site of an abandoned silver mine. Eggers captures the essential weirdness of this journey while firmly anchoring it to Josie’s emotional crisis.
Heroes of the Frontier seems at first an ironic description of this tiny band. But what Eggers shows so convincingly is that there’s a certain heroism in trading a disastrous life for the vague glimpse of a new one. It’s a vote for the optimistic notion that tomorrow has the potential to be better than today.