Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alaska by James Michener

First published in 1988, then in the paperback edition in 1989 this was one of the few Michener's I had not read  although I have a shelf of  complete works. In January I determined this was a must read prior to our August journey to Alaska and so it traveled south with us and then returned home.  It is a Michener tome, a wonderful work, over 1100 pages, very small print but I finished it last month; read very little of it on our trip when I  went through other books faster.  James Michener is one of  my all time favorites if not the number one author, who else  does such marvelous research and delves into history, geography, sociology, anthropology, biology, geology and all facets of whatever subject he tackled, perhaps David McCullough and is it not a coincidence both authors are Pennsylvanians with roots into Pittsburgh.

An adroitly blended mixture of fact and fiction, woven through 12 chapters covering geolocigal concepts beginning far before the prehistoric era  with Clashing Terranes and culminating with Alaskan statehood in the final chapter, Rim of Fire there is no history nor anthropology of a peoples untouched. The early movement of the woolly mammoth and the arrival of humans is almost comical but becomes tragic.  I cannot begin to adequately review this book;  readers who enjoy learning as they read and spending a good long time delving into a work enjoy Michener.  It is neither light reading nor for someone lacking rudimentary literary, historical, sociological background.  As only Michener can do, the historical is expanded upon, characters embellished or created and their descendants survive through the ages tying all the chapters back to the earliest times and memorializing events.    It is not until Chapter 3, that humans arrive, first on a small island of the Aleutians, about 12,000BPE however the Athapascans are the first,  much  much later the Eskimos and  finally the Aleuts who were probably a mixture of Eskimo while the Tlingits were descended from the Athapascans.  The Russians, English and Americans explorers, sailors, narrative covers  Tsar Peter the Great, Vitus Bering, George Steller and Aleksei Chirikov, Captain James Cook, William Bligh, George Vancouver and more. 

I was a teenager in 1959 when Alaska  became a state and I recall then from studies that it must surely be a desolate wilderness.  The Alaskan history, settlements, heritage of the Russian Orthodox  church, seal hunting, life cycles of salmon, reindeer, whales,  gold rush, mining techniques and equipments,  land rush and maneuvers of the Seattle businessmen who conspired to keep it as a territory make fascinating pondering.  I never  knew before reading this book about the US government land give away and transport of hearty stock Minnesotan  but starving  farm families  to settle the Matanuska Valley in the depression.  The families had to be intact families, husband and wife and children, no single stragglers, healthy stock preferred to be German and Finn ancestry.  Those who went and stayed in Alaska prospered eventually but many returned to their homes in MN disheartened.  It was a very different aspect of another type of homestead, managed by the US  government.  This is absolutely a 5 *****. 

I have marked up many passages in my previously pristine volume.  Page 94 for one passage,  as Azaruk an early human ponders,  "Will I find a refuge for my people?  Does that matter?  And as he tucked the little figure back in its pouch he could hear the laughter, the chuckling of the wind coming over the hail, the exhilaration of a whale breaching after a long  submarine chase, the gaiety of a young fox chasing birds and lessly, the wonderful hallowed sound of a universe that does not care whether a man finds refuge or not, so long as he enjoys the irreverent pleasure of the search. "  See and feel the picture that passage portrays?  

Page 106 on the origin of the word Alaska, is precious  linguistic history,  "The Aleutian word for  Great Land was Alaxsxaq'"   but earliest  Europeans stopping in this portion of the arctic asked  the name of the lands ,   and in their tongues Alaxsxaq became Alaska. 

Page 207, when the a settler considers to marry an Eskimo woman, Kiinak, "Let this be a lesson.  Good lives only come from  good beginnings. "

When we tour Alaska in August I will have knowledge to build upon and an enhanced perspective having read this great work.