TRAVELING AROUND ALASKA’S COAST: TIP OF THE ICEBERG

This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams.  Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.

A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself.  The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.

Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.  

And then there are the characters and situations he encounters.  While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud.  He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.

The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself.  The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies.  Check it out for yourself.

 

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WILDERNESS THREATS: THE WILD INSIDE

There’s something about the untamed wilderness as a setting for a thriller or a horror story that just works. Whatever human evil might be lurking about is augmented and made worse by the weather, the terrain, the unforgiving nature.  While The Great Alone wasn’t a thriller per se, the fact of the family’s living in Alaska adds to the tension and the danger the characters are facing, and a new novel, The Wild Inside, by Jamey Bradbury, also uses the setting of Alaska’s wild country to ratchet up the suspense of the story.

Tracy Petrikoff, the protagonist, has grown up in the remote forests of Alaska, and is a born trapper and hunter. Between tracking animals and training her dogs for the Iditarod, her life is complete, and, aside from her mother’s recent death from a hit and run accident, reasonably happy. But then one day she’s attacked by a stranger in the woods and left there, unconscious.  Her memory of events is jumbled and partial, which bothers her. The next day she spots a stranger who seems oddly familiar, and who’s sporting a serious wound from a hunting knife, very much like the one she carries around at all times. She can’t be sure if he’s the one who attacked her, if she cut him in self defense, if she even managed to fight back when she was attacked.

She’s busy in the aftermath of the attack, helping her father cope with her mother’s death, preparing for the Iditarod, and then Jesse Goodwin, a wanderer, appears, seeking a job, and maybe more than a job.  Tracy can tell that he’s got secrets he’s not telling, maybe something to do with the attack, but since she never told her father that she was attacked in the first place, she can’t tell him now why she’s got doubts about Jesse.  He insinuates himself into the family, and Tracy starts encountering other creepy things: the boot prints outside their home, the threatening face of a stranger in a crowd, and the isolation she’s always treasured begins to seem like a danger rather than a benefit. She needs to find out the truth, about her mother’s death, about her attack, about what’s going on now, out in the wild.

 

ALASKA TESTS YOU: THE GREAT ALONE

How do you follow up a bestselling book that spent twenty weeks on the New York Times list and has been fodder for book clubs for years?  Well, if you’re Kristin Hannah, you leave World War II and France behind and set your next book in 1970’s Alaska, and the result is The Great Alone.  If you enjoyed The Nightingale, you will definitely love The Great Alone, and if you’re one of the rare people who didn’t read The Nightingale, you’ll still love The Great Alone if you’re a fan of dramatic books with an incredible sense of place and time.

I have to warn you, the first chapter or so of the book feels cringingly cliche. We have Ernt, the Vietnam veteran husband and father who’s completely messed up by his time in the war, a volatile abusive man who can’t hold onto a job and who is angry at the world. We have his wife, Cora, who’s always making excuses for him and putting up with his behavior (and yes, I realize that I’m viewing a 1970’s character through a 2018 lens, but even in the 1970’s there was some awareness of domestic violence and Cora sometimes seems willfully blind to the obvious signs that Ernt is trouble), and we have the protagonist, the thirteen year old Leni who has been dragged around from one place to another by her somewhat feckless parents.  If you feel you’ve seen them all before, you have some basis for that.

However, once the characters move from the Seattle area to Kaneq, Alaska, painfully unprepared (the classic hippie “living off the land” notion mixed with an invitation from the father of one of Ernt’s Vietnam buddies to come to live near them), the book comes alive. I personally have never been to Alaska, and certainly never came to Alaska in the early 1970’s, but Hannah brings the frontier world to vivid life: the tiny town, the different kinds of homesteads out on the edge of the wilderness, the camaraderie of the locals (one of my favorite characters is Large Marge, a former attorney and a force to be reckoned with) and their eagerness to help these new people get settled and survive.  The weather becomes practically another character (which is one reason this would be a good book to read in the winter because no matter how bad things get around here, you can feel relieved that you’re not living in the Kaneq area in winter). The natural world, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife, both helpful and dangerous, fill the book with verisimilitude.

Leni begins to come into her own, living off the land with her parents, finding her place in the local society, and falling in love with one of the only other kids her age in the school.  There’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet in her romance with Matthew, who’s the son of one of the most powerful people in the town, a man with whom Ernt is bitterly feuding.  

As the long Alaskan winters close in and Ernt becomes more and more violent and irrational, the book becomes more engrossing. You care about the characters even when they do foolish things, and you find yourself rooting for Leni (and Cora, to a lesser extent) to become the strong, independent woman she is developing into over the course of her time in Alaska. There’s a palpable sense of suspense, mostly involving Ernt.  I’m not going to give away the resolution of the plot, though it’s more complicated than you might imagine, but I will say that there is a happy ending of sorts and it’s worth waiting for.

 

HOW THE WEST WAS WON AND LOST : NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Two new books of historical fiction that just arrived this week take different and intriguing looks at the turn of the century in western America, the costs of conquest and the struggles to create the American dream.

the bones of paradise cover

The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee takes us to the Nebraska Sand Hills at the beginning of the 20th century, ten years after the massacre at Wounded Knee.  Two people, a white man named J.B. Bennett and a Lakota woman named Star, are found murdered in a meadow belonging to J. B.  What is the connection between the two of them? Who killed them and why? As J. B.’s broken family comes together to investigate and to figure out their futures in the aftermath of the violence, so Star’s sister, Rose, also comes to the land to come to terms with her loss, and to avenge her sister’s death after all the other deaths and dislocations she and her people have suffered in recent years.  Shadowed by the violence and lawlessness of the frontier and a strong sense of place, The Bones of Paradise makes us look again at where we are and how we got here, and at what cost the west was “won.”

to the bright edge of the world cover

Traveling north, To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey, is set just after the acquisition of Alaska by the United States, in 1885.  Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester leaves his pregnant wife behind when he is ordered to explore the area of the Wolverine River in Alaska, mapping the interior of the country and finding out about the native wildlife and the inhabitants of the area. He and his men soon discover that there is much they don’t know about Alaska, about the people and the animals living there, and their mysterious Eyak guide and the native woman who joins the expedition change their perspective, not only on what is dangerous and what isn’t, but on what is real and what isn’t.  Ivey is the author of The Snow Child, a gorgeous book in its own right, also set in the wild places of Alaska, so this book is likely to be another immersive experience taking us to places and mindsets we won’t find anywhere else (if you haven’t already read The Snow Child, what are you waiting for?  Go and get your hands on a copy! It’s especially good reading in the hottest parts of summer).