... a striking, brave and often lyrical book that defies easy interpretation ... The experiences of the alienated pair are inseparable from their literary quarry, and as they travel up the Pacific coast, whale and human cultures seem to converge, eroding the gap between ourselves and our distant mammalian cousins ... Cunningham adroitly sidesteps much of the male-dominated narratives about whales and whaling, and clearly takes inspiration more from Inuit mythology than from Herman Melville. She and her son make for an unconventionally heroic pair, travelling by plane, train, bus and boat, and incurring disapproving looks and small humiliations in their quest to spot grey whales ... Her sensuous descriptions of grey whales and humpbacks provide some of the book’s richest passages; she looks at the whales and then looks at her son, looking at whales, which look back ... What could she hope to gain by taking her two-year-old on such a long journey, one that might catapult her further into debt and distance her from family? Early on this question is lodged in the writer’s and reader’s mind alike, and it simmers, tantalisingly, throughout the book. At times the narrator seems fixated on obtaining a transformative encounter with the whale, almost betraying a desire to jump the species barrier. Yet she is no Ahab; it is not a single whale to which she is drawn, but the collective, and in the end the whales act as stepping-stones, bridges to human relationships on her journey, notably with other women and mothers. What at first seems a reckless, near-mystical pursuit of an imagined being leads her to find a human pod of her own.
The pair are informative, entertaining company ... contains some fine nature writing ... The beauty of whales, and in particular the bonds that exist between mothers and their young, are touchingly evoked ... Cunningham brings insight and flair to her subject. Her account of climate-change denialism is hard-hitting and her encounters with the Iñupiat take her to the front line of climate-change effects ... The book’s many strands are intricately woven together ... The story of her enduring love for Billy brings the narrative to a moving conclusion. But for all the beauty of its more personal meditations, Soundings is also, inevitably, a story of survival in the face of environmental destruction; of facing an uncertain future.
... captures rarely observed natural places ... Cunningham braids her personal story, Native Alaskan cultural history, cetacean research and climate reporting for a deep dive into how human actions affect life in the ocean. She portrays a world that is disappearing — melting away, at an increasing rate, or transforming into something less hospitable ... Cunningham explains fluid dynamics, breaking down the difference between laminar flow — the sliding, orderly movement close to a whale’s skin — and the unpredictable, energy-draining turbulence farther away from its streamlined shape, past the 'aquatic cocoon' of the boundary layer. The reader understands that reporting on climate disaster, and Cunningham’s own troubles, have sent the journalist into uncomfortable turbulence. She finds an easier groove, and readers are richer for it, in the enduring beauty and resilient wonder of the ocean.
Cunningham writes with urgency ... In tender, often heart-wrenching prose, she recounts her passionate connection with whales alongside the aching story of past romance with a subsistence Utqiagvik whale hunter, a subsequent disastrous love affair in Britain, and then an agonizing child-custody battle ... Cunningham’s drive to better understand the whales is compelled partly by a reporter’s curiosity, but even more so it is the cascade of personal details, stretching back to her childhood, that ensures that this is as much memoir as science narrative. With a light touch and artful prose, Cunningham’s primary message of compassion comes through, a perspective readers are sure to respond to.
Information about whales and climate change are intertwined in the narrative in this lyrical, and informative memoir of a woman who has known strength and happiness in the past and is determined to reclaim them through her affinity with the whales ... This memoir, with its vividly described events and locales, along with its natural history frame, will appeal to readers who enjoy narrative nonfiction or travel memoirs about women recreating themselves, natural history, Indigenous cultures, and whales.
Cunningham is consistently forthcoming and self-aware, and she delivers an informed perspective on climate change and ecological damage with (mostly) gentle insistence. She also relates a harrowing history of Anglo attempts to homogenize and destroy traditional Inuit lifestyles—though occasionally she succumbs to an ideological rant. In her own field, she deplores the continued failures of environmental journalism to counteract the false balance and distortions served up by corporate deniers. A gorgeous, heartfelt coda brings the narrative to a close, and we can’t deny our own sympathies ... An absorbing account that offers urgent warnings for humankind.