Bleak view of Fairbanks in the 1980s doesn’t fit with reality

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By Marjorie Kowalski Cole

HarperCollins Publishers


Fairbanks is a city that has “beat the odds,” as News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole says. It has survived numerous “boom and bust” cycles—gold, military, the oil pipeline. And the most recent “bust” came in 1979, when world-wide oil prices plummeted. The gravy train, as people are wont to say, was derailed.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole’s book, “Correcting the Landscape,” is set in 1985, during this dark time in Fairbanks’ history. Kowalski Cole introduces us to Gus Traynor, the owner/editor of the Fairbanks Mercury, a small weekly newspaper. Like most shoestring publications, Gus has a bare minimum of employees: his sister, Noreen, “chief reporter, supply officer, and adviser”; Gayle Keanneally, a University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism student who sells ads, takes photos, and reports; Felix Heaven, an Irish immigrant (probably illegal) with a penchant for poetry and a willingness to work cheaply; and various stringers as needed.

Finances are always a problem, but Gus, with training in journalism, a stint on the Trans-Alaska pipeline and political experience, is living a dream, willing to suffer uneven paychecks for the promise of the future payouts.

The book opens with a mystery of sorts—a resident looks out her window one morning and sees the grove of trees that graced the bank of the river across from her home is gone.

“Across the river the mixed spruce-birch forest had disappeared, chewed up by heavy machinery. Chopped and splintered wood covered the ground. She looked over a sheared wasteland to the George Parks Highway.”

She calls her friend Gus about this “revision to her landscape,” and he and Gayle go to take a look.

This incident introduces us to Tad, Gus’ partner and friend, his current lady love, Judy Finch, an ice carver, and begins Gus’ slow slide—or rather, illustrates it—into financial oblivion.

There’s a lot going on in this book—a protest about a book at the library and calls to censor it, Natives dying in detox vans or under one of the bridges, businesses packing up and leaving town, and a whole slew of other events that underscore the desperate times the city is going through.

This was a bleak time in Fairbanks history—money was tight for government and individual alike after years of being flush from the oil flowing through the state, people were losing homes and businesses—in this, Gus is not unique. And it’s winter, cold and dark and dreary.

“Sometimes winter closes down on Fairbanks like a cell door. This was one of those winters, arriving with a bitter Halloween.”

The novel is well-researched, rich in detail and history. It is recognizable, to some extent.

But the Fairbanks I know is not like the bleak, dreary place depicted here, and the people who live here are definitely not quitters. With its history of ups and downs, Fairbanks, of all the boom-and-bust towns in the United States, knows how to rebound from adversity. These Fairbanksans don’t seem to have that quality.

And while the characters are richly drawn, they are all archetypes, representing a symbol in the mythology of that sad time.

There’s Gus, the optimistic, born-again Alaskan, embracing his adopted state almost more tightly than the state-born. Noreen, his bitter, defeated-in-love sister who is at loose end, and thus comes to Alaska to find herself. Felix is the outsider, the odd-ball who doesn’t fit in anywhere else, so he comes to Alaska because odd is accepted here.

Gayle is very archetypal as the Native woman who grew up in a village, has seen hard times, including four failed marriages and a 16-year-old son (she’s in her early 40s), whose cousin dies alone and mysteriously of drug and/or alcohol abuse under a bridge in the cold.

Perhaps the biggest symbol is Tad Suliman, and to an extent, his girlfriend. These are the “exploiters,” who see Alaska as a giant cash machine, ripe for the plucking. Tad is the developer, chopping trees down and throwing up ugly buildings willy nilly for the money it generates. Judy Finch is a smaller symbol, an artist who comes up for the Ice Festival, carves her piece, and leaves.

While archetypes are useful to illustrate and make a point, they don’t grow, don’t change, don’t learn from their surroundings. They are, in a sense, flat and non-dimensional, and in the end, really don’t serve the reader well.

At least, for me. I like characters to grow and learn from the trials they go through. Archetypes can’t do that.

And, Gus disappoints me. As a journalist, I take integrity quite seriously—to allow advertisers to dictate content really goers against my grain. And Gus, when his little weekly begins to annoy advertisers, tries to tone things down. He allows a local realtor to read copy before printing, since she’s buying extra copies for distribution. The list goes on. It starts back at the beginning—when Gayle finds Tad Suliman is behind the tree massacre, Gus hesitates to run the story—he doesn’t want to anger his biggest investor.

But once you take that first step down the slippery slope, like an avalanche, it becomes unstoppable. That one step turned Gus from sympathetic to annoying.

For the historic details, this book does capture the time: the fight to keep Nordstrom’s in town, the grief at the loss of nature to development, the concern that some of the state’s residents have failed to share in any of the largesse, is interesting.

But don’t expect to finish this book with smiles and a sense that we in this town can do anything.