The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North
Edited by Anne Hanley and Carolyn Kremers
Fulcrum Publishing 2005
When I first arrived in Alaska, I read voraciously anything—fiction or not—I thought might help me get a handle on this place. After all, it had been three decades or more since I had been here, and I lived in Anchorage, which, these days, resembles Sacramento, California (with snow), more than Alaska. Fairbanks was a completely new and alien planet.
So when I saw “The Alaska Reader,” I was really excited about something new. But another part of me, the practical part, said, “What could be different about this anthology?”
See, I’ve found numerous Alaskana anthologies, and even with different themes, there’s a certain sameness about them. They all include stories illustrating Alaska’s size, its wild nature, the roughing-it lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.
It helped when I read this paragraph in the introduction by Anne Hanley: “We began by looking at as many anthologies of Alaskan writing as we could find. The exercise made me despair. What could we possibly assemble that would say something about Alaska that hadn’t already been said?”
Here was someone who, by her own admittance, knew what a Herculean task she was undertaking—who didn’t have the hubris to believe hers was the definitive picture of Alaska.
In truth, Hanley and Kremers have put together an excellent collection of stories, poems, and excerpts from Alaskan writers that gives a very balanced and enjoyable picture of the 49th state.
Yes, I did say “poems.” Unlike other Alaskana anthologies, this one includes poetry written by Alaskan authors. That in itself sets it apart.
But even if you’re not “into” poetry, there’s so much represented at this banquet no one walks away intellectually hungry—unless they choose to. Hanley and Kremers approached the anthology as a collection of stories. For them, stories are more than just ways to pass time. Hanley got her first glimpse of Alaska in a story by John Muir, and in a place like Alaska, stories become vital ways to transfer wisdom:
“In cultures that depend on the weather and on the movement of animals, stories … convey vital information. In oral traditions, like those of many Alaska Natives, a story is told to a particular audience for a particular purpose.”
And the editors have a true respect and admiration for the people with which they share this state: “I’ve always been impressed at the range of skills possessed by Alaskans … Looking over the writers represented in this anthology, I see hunters, trappers, teachers, pilots, scientists, fishermen and fisherwomen, a stone mason, a sled builder, a former governor, a meat cutter. If I were marooned in a one-room cabin for a whole winter, I would choose these people to be with me, not only because they could keep the fire going and put food on the table, but because they could also sustain my soul.”
Another difference with this anthology is the way it’s broken into sections. With such titles as “Children of Dreamers,” “Taking Risks, Confronting Consequences,” “Naming and Unnaming,” and “Alaska as a Parable for the Future,” among others, how can you not find something tasty?
And the authors included—a complete list would include notables from all genres of Alaskana, and go on for several pages. You have former governor and conservationist Jay Hammond, adventurer Spike Walker, anchorage journalist Kim Rich, scientist Jill Fredston, and mystery writer Dana Stabenow. From the naturalist’s perspective, there are treats from John Muir, Margaret Murie, and Mary Tall Mountain.
Poets include Robert Service, John Morgan, Phoebe Newman, and Sheila Nickerson.
This is an excellent book, a veritable smorgasbord of words that delight, tease, and awe the reader.
I always wonder why editors choose the stories they do for anthologies—what was it about each particular story that made it a candidate, while others, some quite well-written or uniquely prescient, get left out. Obviously, that’s something the editors have wondered, because they tell you why each story was chosen: “In the end, deciding the final selections was easy. We simply chose what we could not bear to leave out.”
Each section has a particular “message,” if you will. My favorites were the section on risk, because it also includes consequences, and the last section, using Alaska as the “canary in the mine for changes brought about by global warming,” as the editors put it.
This section contains writings from three naturalists, a former governor, two native Alaskans, a Native Athabascan, two newspaper writers, two former Poet laureates, two historians, and a former fighter pilot. (And yes, I know that’s more than the 10 people listed in the contents page. But that’s what Hanley meant by the skills possessed by Alaskans.)
These accomplished writers have taken the idea that change can be good or bad and run with it, writing about everything from nuclear testing to politics to climate change.
Charles Wohlforth, in “The Whale and the Supercomputer,” talks about the way the changing climate will alter society globally. He argues that scientists can’t just study the science, but rather, they have to look at how the science affects people, because we’re stowing away on this “Spaceship Earth,” and there’s really no leaving us behind on the journey (although the possibility of leaving this planet and expanding into the universe seems to come closer every decade):
“Events in an infinitely complex world, full of constantly adapting people and natural systems, cannot be predicted reliably by a mathematical code.”
I thought that was genius, myself.
And the piece by Howard Weaver, a former newspaper editor born in Anchorage, now living in Sacramento, Calif., who took the mirror image of my road—he left Alaska and went to California, while I left Sacramento and came here. He talks about why, even when people leave, many come back in the end (and I thought I was unusual in that respect):
“Over the decades in the writing game in Alaska, I suppose I encountered every one of the 6,743 clichés available to describe the place, and none was ever truer than this: The real Alaska isn’t so much a state as a state of mind.”
And he admits he left because he felt that state of mind “had deteriorated faster than a spawned-out humpy in fresh water.”
But you can read between his words that he does miss it, and when a well-wisher predicts, “You’ll be back,” he is silent.
“Who am I to argue with that?” he finishes.
And that is what this anthology is about. It is well worth the time to read, and is definitely something I’ll go back to time and again, when I need to understand why I gave up sunshine and fresh citrus fruit from my yard for 60 below weather and darkness at noon.
It’s not the outside that counts—it’s the stories being told inside.