Thursday, August 1, 2013

Recommended Books About Alaska

Whether you are planning to visit Alaska or are an armchair traveler, the following are books that I commend to your attention, in no particular order.  Selections below include poetry, fiction, cartoons, and non-fiction (natural world, true crime, autobiographies and history).  I will add to this blog over time.  


Poetry:                        Robert Service

Sample titles: books:  Songs of a Sourdough (1907) with “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.

Service is such a well known poet in Alaska that schools are named after him, but the fact is that he lived in Canada (Dawson City, Whitehorse, Vancouver), never Alaska.  Even so, Alaskan school children used to (maybe they still do, some places) have to memorize one of his ballads to deliver to the class or on, paper, to the teacher.  I highly recommend one of his slim books of verse to anyone interested in immersing himself or herself in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Gold Rush era.  His poems, with a driving rhythm that cries out to be read aloud (even to yourself) capture the loneliness and risks braved by men and women confronted by conniving men and women, as well as by weather, animals, topography, greed and hubris.  Each poem is a well told story with plot twists and emotional recoil – shifting between humor and pathos. Service was the most commercially successful poet of his age, derided by “high-brow” writers for writing doggerel and verse, rather than poetry.  That was fine by him.  And by me.


Touching fiction:         Eowyn Ivey:   

Sample title:    The Snow Child

Ivey’s first novel is one that has attracted attention and translations faster than you can say “October snowfall.”  I have recommended it to many of my friends because this is one of the few books about Alaska that that describe the arctic winter, not as a danger to be overcome (like Jack London’s tales), but as stunningly beautiful – a privilege to behold.  Her depiction of a yellow birch leaf flowing below the clear, icy surface of a creek is one such image early in the novel, followed by many others.  Her marvelous sense of place grounds a story that is also graced by a compelling plot populated by believable characters (married homesteaders in the 1920s and their nearest neighbors) who transition through experiences, over time.   This book describes some of the challenges and joys I have discovered in my little log cabin in the middle of nowhere in ways that I hope my friends can appreciate through this author’s skill. 

Dour fiction:    Jack London:

Sample titles:  White Fang, Call of the Wild, short stories such as “To Build a Fire.”

If you asked anyone the name of an author who writes/wrote about Alaska, my guess is that Jack London would be the most frequently named.  He did go up to the Klondike and climbed Chilkoot Pass but didn’t stay long. Over the winter he developed scurvy and started losing his teeth. He headed south less than a year and a half later, in 1898.  By 1900, he was a well compensated author, compellingly depicting difficult experiences up north.  London’s stories and novels are so vivid that images and feelings linger long after.  It is my impression (not having read all of them) that his depictions of Alaska and Canada are uniformly dark.  The terrain and weather are forces to be fought, against which humans can rarely win, and in that fight, people discover the worst or the weaknesses in themselves and one another.  Partners turn on one another, and those partners can include hungry dogs against vicious masters.  His is a harrowing, dystopian world.

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

This very slim volume by a native Athabascan author, can be read in about three hours.  It is based on a story, maybe true, maybe not, of two old native women left at some indeterminate time by their nomadic tribe to die during a winter when there is not enough food for everyone.  They survive, thanks to their wits, memories, and two tools given them by departing relatives.  So although the plot sounds depressing, it is really a celebration of resilience by people others had written off as a useless drain on resources. It will certainly keep you from whining next time you are tempted! 


Sue Henry and Dana Stabenow:

Both authors are prolific, with some books about Alaska and others not.  The three Alaska series all feature a repeated cast of rough and tumble and often quirky characters in out-of-the-way places.  Each book is a stand-alone mystery, but like many series, it may be worth reading them in order to appreciate the developing relationships among some of the main characters. 

Sue Henry’s main character is Jessie Arnold, a competitive dog musher.  Two of the mysteries occur during the most famous annual races:  Murder on the Iditarod Trail (book 1) and Murder on the Yukon Quest (book 6).   This series would be particularly appealing to dog lovers as the dogs, particularly, Tank, are endearing characters, and the author’s descriptions of dog training and racing are integral to the plots.  A good title choice for a traveler taking the Inside Passage cruise is Death Takes Passage, which occurs on a boat along that route.

Dana Stabenow has two Alaska based series, the main characters of which are Kate Shugak and Liam Campbell, respectively. 

Shugak is an Aleut private investigator who lives on a homestead in an unnamed national park in Alaska.  Among the 19 books are titles like A Cold Day for Murder (book 1) and A Fine and Bitter Snow ( Book 12) Campbell is an Alaska trooper, working primarily around Bristol Bay.  Among the four titles in this series are Fire and Ice and So Sure of Death (Books 1 and 2).  Because these books, particularly the first series, do a good job of describing native cultures, tribal management, and conflicts with Caucasian law enforcement, they may strike some readers as akin to an Alaskan version of Tony Hillerman’s novels about the tribes of the American Southwest.    



Tundra by Chad Carpenter

Tundra is now syndicated in a number of national newspapers, and its books are available in stores and from the author’s website.  The author’s quirky humor is very Alaskan, with its jokes about the social behavior of moose, beavers, bears, igloos, snowmen, and the humans who think they understand them.

There’s the one depicting a bald eagle with a toupee, the dog entering an outhouse containing a fire hydrant, and various other fun inanities.  


Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History by Ronald L. Smith

This textbook size, 400 page book contains so many interesting explanations to the “why” and “how” questions about Alaskan animals and plants that I have check marked passages throughout for subsequent review.  The author was a Biology Professor at UA-Fairbanks and he writes in a very accessible way.  How do these animals survive the winter?  How do those birds migrate so far?  What is the tundra, a bog, a mud flat?  Inquiring minds driving or cruising through the state will find satisfying answers and interesting anecdotes in this book.    

Travellers’ Wildlife Guides volume, Alaska by Dennis Paulson and Les Beletsky

This compact 475 book contains hundreds of color illustrations and photographs in a book well designed for the eco-tourist visiting various regions of Alaska and wondering, “What type of whale or duck or bird is that?” You can flip through the pictures to find the likely candidate and then refer to the informative descriptions about the ecology, behavior, breeding, and other information about each one.  

Roadside Geology of Alaska by Cathy Conner and Daniel O’Haire

I love these Roadside Geology books for any state I drive through, and this one is great for a state so tectonically active and geologically varied.   Do you wonder whether a particular glacier has advanced or receded, where there is gold mining, what the effect of earthquakes and volcanoes have wrought, what that outcrop of rocks is?  This book is for you.  Since many Southeast Alaska towns have no road connections to the rest of the state (Juneau, Ketchikan), the book provides “roadside geology” viewed by cruise ships and marine ferries, as from the Alcan Highway and other major roads in the state. 

Pictures:  Outhouses of Alaska and Log Cabins of Alaska by Harry Walker.  These are small, slim books, with color photographs and commentary about some unusual outhouses and picturesque cabins in the state.  Some of the buildings are stately, while others are created out of cleverly repurposed materials, like a boat or shapely branches. I myself have an outhouse with stained glass windows and a pretty log cabin.  Perhaps a second volume is in order!

Ada BlackJack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven

This is a harrowing story of an ill conceived and poorly executed Arctic expedition in 1923 organized by a self-promoter who doesn’t even accompany the na├»ve men he recruits.  Ada is an Inuit woman who accompanies the men as a seamstress and, it turns out, the only one with any knowledge pertinent to survival. 

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, by Heather Lende

The author lives in the coastal town Haines, AK, which her book describes so lovingly that the reader will want to go there and be her friend.  Many of the chapters are based on the obituaries she wrote for the town newspaper, but those articles and this book are a celebration of life in a town where the neighbors like each other and appreciate every day joys of their lovely setting.

Race Across Alaska by Libby Riddles and Tim Jones

Riddles was the first woman to win the grueling, 1000 mile long Iditerod dog race.  Her co-author crafts a compelling story filled with the details that inquiring minds want to know, about the care and feeding of the dogs, the racer, and the mind games that occur from sleeplessness, competition, and challenging conditions. 

Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man by Doug Fine    

This is a hilarious, autobiographical book by and about a travel writer who rents a cabin just outside of Homer, AK and endeavors to learn about such basics as food, warmth, shelter and, well, manliness.  His description of trying to use a chainsaw is laugh-out-loud funny, and his turns of phrase, like “remedial indigenousness” are right on target.  I read this as I, too, was starting on our adventures and misadventures carving a home site out of the woods, so while I laughed at and with the author, I also saw myself (and certainly my husband) in many of his anecdotes.   

One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith

The author describes the life lead by a loner who shed a traditional life of towns and jobs to live alone in a log cabin he built near Lake Clark, Alaska.  The photos,  alone, are worth the price of the book, but Keith’s straight forward narration about how Richard Proenneke built the tools he needed to construct the structures he required offer a fascinating glimpse into a life of minimal consumerism and social interaction that yielded a very contented life.    

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

The story of illusive Christopher McCandless and his post college odyssey  through the Southwest that ended in Alaska, where he died of starvation is best read as the short story the author first wrote for Outside Magazine in 1993.  He subsequently lengthened the story into a book (1996) by padding it with narratives about other people who took off for remote places and did or didn’t make it, but to me, that version was not as satisfying a read.  This was made into a movie, directed by Sean Penn, around 2007. 

Walking My Dog, Jane by Ned Rozell

The author is a contributing science and nature writer to Alaska newspapers and magazines, and for one he wrote a series of articles, depicted in this book, as he and his dog walked 800 miles along the Alaska pipeline.  Rozell describes well both the land he crosses and the people he meets, who range from corporate PR people at oil company offices to old homesteaders out in the bush.

Wager with the Wind:  the Don Sheldon Story, by James Griener

Planes are indispensable to such a large state with so few roads, and bush pilots are to Alaska what pony express riders were to the “wild west”:  brave and resilient individualists with tales of danger and near escapes.  There are many worthy books about impressive bush pilots, but certainly Don Sheldon is among the most famous, and this book devotes separate chapters to individual adventures.   The one about landing in the Devil’s Canyon to retrieve stranded rafters was the most amazing to me. 

Murder at 40 Below: True Crime Stories from Alaska by Tom Brennan

This slim book contains ten true crime stories, each one 10 – 30 pages long.  The Birdman of Alcatraz is here (he was from Juneau), as well as a sociopathic 14 year old and a baker who picked up prostitutes and flew them out in his plane to hunt them when his trophy wall got too full (being made into a movie with Nicholas Cage and John Cusack, called “Frozen Ground.”

In Search of Ancient Alaska by Ellen Bielawski

This five chapter book, written by a Ph.D in archaeology is written in a very accessible style for readers interested in the people who crossed the Bering Sea ten thousand years ago. She answers questions such as how were the regions settled?  How are the tribes related to each other and to others in Siberia and Canada?   What was the climate like and how did they live?  What remains have been found and what has to be surmised? 

Aunt Phil’s Trunk: an Alaska historian’s collection of treasured tales by Phyllis Downing Carlson and Laurel Downing Bill

The gem of this series of books, organized into chronological chunks of Alaska history, is the hundreds of wonderful black and white photographs in each book, documenting the interesting periods, people, and anecdotes.  Each chapter is short, 5-10 pages so it is very easy to search for passages of interest, for example about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians or of the effects of the Anchorage earthquake, or of the Russian trappers and American gold miners.  I found that this series includes many fascinating tidbits I had not read elsewhere.  


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