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Alaska: A Novel

Alaska - James A. Michener If you only read one Michener book, read Hawaii. If you decide to read a second, read this one. Full disclosure: the other Michener works I've read so far include Tales of the South Pacific, Return to Paradise, Sayonara, Chesapeake, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Hawaii. So what makes it so good?Writing History WellThis is the history of Alaska told across the span of 29,000 years, from the first Siberian tribespeople crossing the Bering Sea, up to present day. For the most part, it is the history of the unglamerous and mostly unsung; men and women hoping for riches, to be sure, but usually lucky and grateful to merely survive in this challenging environment. Michener selects excellent historical highlights to give us a sense of Alaska: Siberian tribesmen fleeing community strife, Russian exploration of the Aleutians, 18th century New England whalers, gold rush boomtowns along the Yukon River, Eskimo villages along the Northern slope, salmon fisheries in the southern panhandle, bush pilots and dislocated Depression-Era Minnesotan farmers in the central interior, and the oil boom of the 1970's. Fundamental to Michener's writing is an understanding that true accomplishment- whether the contruction of lasting institutions, or enduring wealth, or momentous social change- comes only at the hands of determined and enterprising individuals who take risks, make sacrifices, work intellegently, and enjoy instances of pure luck. While the overall narration is one of economic and social development, not everyone meets with success. Accidents, the unforgiving physical environment, and human calamity beset these characters, and some do not recover. The stunning and unexpected deaths of Jeb Keeler and Buck Venn drive this home powerfully. Going beyond mere mechanical storytelling, Michener deftly outlines philosophical aspects of settlement- particularly in the 1800‘s. On one hand, trade and development could only begin with adventurous, entrepaneurial spirits, working independently ...free of micromanaging government or corporate home offices. This is the "producer-as-hero" motif which Ayn Rand tends to overdo. Whereas Rand makes her producer/heros akin to infallable superbeings, Michener recognizes their human failings; many of his producers are misfits, either aloof of mainstream society (e.g. Mr Klope in Dawson City), or disenfranchiesed on the grounds of social taboos or legal trouble (e.g. Missy Peckham). For them, Alaska was a a fresh start in a land culturally and physically remote from the rest of the world. Rugged, self-reliant figures carve out empires for themselves here, according to their own rules, and guided by self-interest. This view romanticizes Libertarian aspects of frontier life; but Michener tempers it well with the downside of lawlessness: gangs and renegades like 'Soapy' Smith terrorized honest citizens like Tom Venn. Michener’s delivery of these issues elevates the entire book above mere recitation of historical facts. It becomes what I think most historical fiction aspires to be: not just informative and entertaining, but actually thought-provoking and germane to our current place in history. Writing TechniqueAlaska was published in 1988, late on in James Michener's career, when his experience and craft were at their peak. Despite its heft, it reads fast. In fact, I would place it on par with Hawaii for readability. Hawaii comes across maybe slightly better due to the author's obvious love for the subject; he had personal ties to the Islands. Alaska, however is probably the technically superior book. I believe it juggles more characters and storylines, yet maintains readability. I think this must be a testament to Michener's growth as a writer. As it follows multiple generations of characters through a wide geographic area, Alaska’s transitions are smoother than Hawaii and Chesapeake's. Those earlier works felt more compartmentalized in time and space... characters would play out their drama, and then the close of their era would end each chapter. Alaska seems to have more linkages, fewer discontinuities. Take, for example, the story arc of Cidaq: her movement from the Aleutians to Sitka early in life transport the story’s physical setting, and then her life in Sitka raising her son (Arkady) moves the timeline smoothly into the next generation. Also (and this is a minor point, but it impressed me): there is a smooth shift in narration from Kendra Scott to the Japanese mountainclimbers when they pass, unknowing, in an airport. In his earlier, less sophisticated works, it seems like Michener would probably have ended Scott's chapter and started anew with the Takabuki storyline. This felt smoother. Readers‘ AidsThe four detailed maps are mostly sufficient to support the text, which is an improvement over past Michener works. Better still, pages vii-viii of the foreword lay out clearly which elements in the story are fictional, and which are faithfully-depicted historical fact. Every work of historical fiction should have this. If an author wants to mix the historic record with fiction, I’m willing to grant a lot of artistic license, but at some point, I want to be able to sort out which was which. It can be fun to read historical fiction in preparation for travel, but you don’t want to be the idiot at the back of the tour group, asking “Can we see the place where Luke Skywalker and those peasants stormed the Bastille?”