Category Archives: The Armchair Adventurer

Book reviewing can be fun, but it is also fraught with hazards. Especially if you know the writer. My aim when reviewing is to think, however, of the reader, not the writer. If someone is going to go out and spend hard-earned money on a book, I would hate to mislead him or her. So I try to be honest. And I’m a bear about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style. You know, that stuff most people think isn’t important. I beg to differ. But, in the end, a review is merely one woman’s opinion of a book. I tell writers who are disappointed with me that my views aren’t necessarily the best or worst, just mine.

Fight for Alaska’s statehood and the players behind it featured in excellent history

Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood51W9GE-3C7L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_

by Terrence Cole

University of Alaska Press

2010  $30


Alaskans celebrated a major milestone recently – half a decade of statehood. It was a wild party, celebrated over an entire year, encompassing 586,412 square miles and somewhere in the neighborhood of 621,400 partiers.

Alaska the state was born January 3, 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the statehood bill, but gestation and labor – the drive to make Alaska the 49th state of the USA — lasted much longer, as statehood activists fought segregationists, federal agencies, and sometimes even neighbors and friends for the opportunity to determine her own destiny.

Historian Terrence Cole details the efforts waged and eventual success in “Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood.” While this past year saw numerous volumes taking on this subject, including Cole’s brother, News-Miner columnist Dermot, Terrence’s effort stands out for its focus on the people behind the statehood drive, most especially C.W. Snedden, owner and publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Alaska was a territory of the US for 50 years, and a possession for 92 years. It was unique in that it was non-contiguous, bordering Canada rather than other states. Statehood opponents claimed allowing Alaska to join the Union would then open the door to other non-contiguous entities, including Italy, Puerto Rico, and maybe even Russia, vying for statehood.

Other obstacles were Alaska’s enormous size, lack of infrastructure and population, minimal economic base, long coastline, and challenging climate. In short, the rest of the country wasn’t quite sure what they would do with Alaska once she shook off the shackles of federal oversight.

The biggest tripping point was the obstinacy of segregationists in the halls of the U.S. Congress and Senate chambers. Fearing the addition of Alaska and Hawaii would upset their hold on power, Southern Democrats the likes of “Judge” Howard Smith of Virginia, who, as head of the House Rules Committee, was a formidable obstacle to getting the legislation on the floor for a vote, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, avidly opposed to the civil rights movement, fought desperately to keep Alaska a territory. Smith went so far as to say, on record, he was opposed to statehood for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and any other territory not attached to the mainland. “I want to keep the United States of America on the American continent,” he said on the floor of Congress in 1955.

Those stubborn Southern Democrats didn’t count on confronting a group of people even more stubborn than themselves – Alaskans tired of being on the short end of the federal stick – told what to do and how to do it with their resources and land; watching faceless bureaucrats make life-changing decisions from far away with no thought to the way things worked in a harsh, isolated land; and having no say in the election of those officials. Living in Alaska requires strength, toughness, and persistence – traits Snedden and other statehood advocates had in abundance. Those Southern Democrats wouldn’t know what hit them.

The first – and one of the biggest – blunt objects to hit the Dixiecrats was Snedden himself. Born in Spokane in 1913, Charles Willis “Bill” Snedden discovered his calling to newspaper work as a teen, when he realized the Linotype typesetter was making a very good living. He possessed the perfect attributes for the job: “besides mechanical aptitude and skilled hands, an essential requirement for a Linotype man was knowing how to spell, and particularly knowing how to spell like a printer: upside down and backward.”

After World War II, Snedden became a consultant for ailing newspapers, because selling Linotypes gave him a particular insight into what worked and what didn’t. Austin “Cap” Lathrop was concerned his daily, the News-Miner, wasn’t making money; he invited Snedden up to see what he could do for them. Snedden originally turned him down because the News-Miner was too small for him, but eventually decided it would be a great excuse for a fishing trip.

When Lathrop refused to spend the money Snedden said was needed to improve the paper, Snedden bought it himself. Lathrop’s sudden, unexpected death right after they shook on it didn’t queer the deal, so Snedden found himself with a money-losing paper badly in need of modernization and improvement. Snedden had become an Alaskan, if somewhat accidentally, and her fortunes were his.

Snedden was originally against the idea of statehood, thinking the young state needed to grow up a bit before leaving the federal nest. But he was an optimist, believing Alaska could eventually become something great.

“Alaska was a paradise of promise,” Cole writes, “a garden of expectations … [s]tatehood would be the primary avenue to bring this transformation about.” When Snedden was convinced by statehood adherents of the folly of his earlier views, he jumped in the fight with both feet, using the News-Miner to trumpet the idea of independence.

Snedden was a brilliant newspaperman, knowing what readers wanted and how to give it to them. He also knew how to use his paper for the good of the community, giving untold inches of space to civic improvement projects, elections, and other community issues.

His efforts paid off; Alaska was signed into statehood; and though Snedden wasn’t at the signing ceremony, he was given one of the ceremonial signing pens as a thank-you for his efforts.

Cole has given us an immensely detailed account of the fight for statehood, mostly from Snedden’s viewpoint, but he has also done an admirable job of introducing us to other important players in the making of our history, including Fred Seaton, federal Secretary of the Interior who pushed Eisenhower to make Alaska a state, Bob Atwood, owner of the Anchorage Daily News, an early statehood proponent; Ernest Gruening and Mike Stepovich, politicians; and young attorney Theodore Fulton Stevens, who started out as Snedden’s lawyer, did a stint as the US District Attorney for the Forth Judicial Division, and went on to the Department of the Interior before being elected to and serving as a U.S. Senator for the state of Alaska, becoming the longest-serving and most loved senator in Alaska’s history.

Cole excels at providing truckloads of facts and data in a very readable, easily understood format. He gives back history of major characters in a way that does not distract the reader from the real story, but enhances our understanding of the players’ motivations and agendas. He is objective in his descriptions, using letters, newspapers, and other primary documents without interjecting opinion in inappropriate places.

Cole also details the early differences between Anchorage and Fairbanks, giving readers a glimpse into a rivalry that has existed almost since the beginning, but making it clear residents of both cities want only what’s best for the state and themselves.

“Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood” is an excellent birthday present for Alaskans, one that reminds us why we make this young, vibrant state our home.

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

Correcting the Landscape411JG191T9L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

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.


Excellent picture books introduce kids to Alaska’s wonders

Big Alaska51adVRwHKfL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

By Debbie Miller

Illustrations by Jon Van Zyle

Walker & Co., 2006

Kids are fascinated by the animal life in Alaska, and author Debbie Miller, in her 10th children’s book, “Big Alaska: Journey Across America’s Most Amazing State,” has taken that fascination and run with it. Or rather, soared.

Because the main character in this unique children’s book is a bald eagle, who flies across the state, leading readers on a fascinating trip into what makes the 49th state so remarkable. From Admiralty Island, where there is the largest concentration of bald eagle nests, to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the largest in North America, and all letters of the alphabet in between, this eagle covers mountains, streams, lakes, glaciers, and islands, introducing young readers to grizzly bears, Chinook salmon, walrus, Kodiak brown bears, muskoxen, wolves, and sled dogs.

“Big Alaska” was inspired by Miller’s experiences with Everett, a stuffed bald eagle that has traveled all around the world. Everett is the mascot of a fourth-grade class in Chicago, who journeys throughout the world and sends reports, cards, letters and photos back to his classroom, a sort-of Flat Stanley in plush.

He visited Miller and her family, sharing adventures in skiing, mushing, sledding, and a visit to Denali National Park and Preserve, flying over Mount McKinley in a Super Cub to get an “eagle-eye” view of the tallest mountain in North America.

In addition to the gorgeous illustrations by Jon Van Zyle, collaborating on his eighth book with Miller, the book includes a lot of facts about “The Last Frontier,” in easy-to-take doses so kids are learning while enjoying the eagle’s flight. Miller includes geography, biology, Athabascan culture, animal facts, and state statistics, packing a ton of fascinating information in a highly readable, enjoyable book.


The Animal in Me is Very Plain To See51Ugmiu5buL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

By Laurie C. Tye

Illustrations by Thomas D. Mangelsen

WestWinds Press, 2005

For ages 3 to 6

Laurie C. Tye uses animals to help children understand their emotions and feelings. In “The Animal in Me is Very Plain to See,” Tye assigns animals to common feelings. Hunger is a grizzly bear, anger is a lion, sadness is “a dark brown bison standing alone in a white storm.”

Along with the photographs and hoof- and pawprint graphics, bright colors, big type, and simple words, the book reads simply and easily, like a bedtime lullaby. The prose, while simple, not only introduces children to animals and emotions, but with its simile style, gets them ready for more complicated reading. The softcover book is composed of thick pages, easy for little hands to grip, and the pictures are breathtaking.

Mangelsen is an experienced wildlife photographer, having spent a lifetime capturing Nature in his lens. Tye has a degree in education, spending her days teaching and interpreting for the deaf, as well as writing.


“Moose Village Alaska”

By Mike Conley

Illustrated by Ric Estrada and Marc Estrada

Moose Kids Publishing Co. (2005)


Kids like colorful pictures, so Mike Conley’s “Moose Village Alaska” will delight youngsters ages 1 through 3. It’s the story of Little Moe, a young moose who wants to play outside in his wintry playground on the Yukon River but must do his chores first.

Little Moe must follow Mama Moose’s instructions before he can join his friends, Mattie Moose and Buddy Beaver, ice skating, snowboarding, and sledding.

The words are simple; the drawings, clean and sharp with bright colors, will attract the attention of children being read to and the eyes of those just starting to read.

Conley’s moose are anthropomorphic, more people than animals, and the author’s notes on the back explain: “He (Conley) developed a respect and reverence for moose, and unlike many longtime Alaskans, has never shot one.”

The art was done by father and son team Ric Estrada and Marc Estrada of Utah. Ric does line drawings with a black fine line marker, and son Marc fills in the color using Adobe Photoshop. The Conley-Estrada-Estrada collaboration began when Conley read an article about Ric in a Utah newspaper.

Early Alaskan ethnographer’s journals give glimpse into Native studies

Tanana and Chandalar: The Alaska Field Journals of Robert A. McKennan 41elizxIE5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Edited by Craig Mishler & William E. Simeone

The University of Alaska Press, 2006




Like many people, Robert A. McKennan fell in love with Alaska. Although he never lived here, he became thoroughly enamored of the place and its people.

McKennan was a cultural anthropologist, trained at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., and Harvard University, specializing in Native American studies. He joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1930 as an instructor of sociology. With the exception of his field trips and a three-year absence during World War II, he spent 40 years there.

McKennan took his first trip to Alaska in 1929, at the suggestion of a professor, Roland Dixon. He took a second trip, a longer one, in 1933, with a new doctorate from Harvard and grants from the Social Science Research Council and the National Research Council. He spent the summer studying the ethnography of the Gwich’in Natives. It was only the first of several anthropological studies in the Territory.

McKennan was one of the first ethnographers to study Alaska Natives, and became one of the premiere ethnographers in this subject. He published two major works detailing his studies, The Upper Tanana Indians (1959) and The Chandalar Kutchin (1965).

Ethnographies of the time were formal studies, written in the third person, “objective and empirical,” editor Craig Mishler writes in the Introduction to this work. Ethnographies document a culture and lifestyle, but do not interject the observer into the community. To do so, Mishler writes, would have pegged the writer as “egotistical and self-indulgent.”

McKennan himself writes in the preface to The Chandalar Kutchin, “I readily admit that I like the Chandalar Kutchin, their country, and their way of life, but I trust that I have balanced empathy with objectivity in my depiction of the native culture.”

Field journals, in contrast, are day-to-day observations written by the anthropologist, and by nature include much of the soul of the researcher, as he depicts not only life in the community being studied, but how he interacts with and becomes a part of that community.

The journals heretofore were kept in the Dartmouth archives since just before McKennan died in 1982. They were found by a former student, already typed up (the handwritten originals have never been located). Editors Mishler and William E. Simeone have allowed us a fascinating glimpse not only of an anthropologist at work, but the Native cultures he studied. At a time when most of the Natives had had very little contact with white culture. McKennan’s journals reflect cultures on the brink of transformation.

The journals are a “contemporary, postmodern sensibility that we now find more compelling than the original ethnographies. The field journals are written reflexively and critically in the first person. They are in a lively narrative form. And they openly reflect the author’s personal biases and inner feelings,” Mishler writes. Both the journals and the studies are important, Mishler continues, as the one represents the humanistic side of the anthropological tradition, the other showing the scientific tradition.

The book also contains numerous photos, most taken by McKennan during the course of his studies.

McKennan’s first trip, to the Upper Tanana, took place between September 1929 and June 1930. He lived in tents and cabins, traveled by foot, horse and dogsled, and found himself sharing some of the same concerns as the Natives he studied, mostly in terms of food. Living as he did in the same isolated villages, McKennan found trading posts and stores few and far between. The tradition of sharing with visitors and the scarcity of provisions meant he often worried that he would run out of food. He did, however, take enthusiastically to the subsistence hunting lifestyle, and many of his entries document the great hunts he participated in, both with Natives and other white men.

The journals are compelling reading, as McKennan has a keen eye and witty pen. He details everything, from the state of his abodes to the stature and habits of his study subjects.

There is a map before each section, showing his journeys and the villages in which he stayed, allowing the reader to follow him in his journeys. The entries at first are introduced with both the day of the week and the date, but eventually the day is dropped and only the date remains.

Interspersed among the journal entries are letters written to McKennan’s wife, Kay, and other members of his family. The journal entries are written in an epistolary style, chatty and familiar, bringing the reader into the intimate circle of the writer’s life.

McKennan was far from a stuffy, professorial anthropologist. In addition to keen observations, occasionally waxes poetic as he observes Nature and her power.

He observes, on Jan. 13, as he prepares for bed: “The dogs have been unusually restless tonight and every time they start howling I rush to the door, only to see nothing but a big round moon. There it shines, cold and serene, making dark shadows on the snow-white peaks that surround me. Tonight it seems cold and cruel as it shines there so stoically.”

And yet, the practical scientist is never far away. He finishes the entry with: “And so to bed.”

The only technical fault I find is end notes as opposed to footnotes. End notes, while easier for the editors, are a pain for most readers, as the interruption to page back to the note section and finding the correct entry is far more distracting than looking to the bottom of the page.

Additionally, when sections are as long as these are, end notes are even more annoying.

But, as I said, technical nitpicks. Maybe other readers will not be so annoyed.

Readers looking at this book with 21st century mores will note some arrogance and patronizing attitudes towards the Natives and some of their habits. There is a lot of ethnocentricity here, and a few instances of double standards, such as McKennan’s disdain for Native leaders who turn their back on Native ways, while at the same time preferring to spend time with those Natives who are more “civilized” and cleaner than their ignorant brethren. But wise readers will remember that McKennan was a product of his time and anthropology was still in its infancy, so to speak, with many lessons on people and cultures yet to be learned. It’s best to send the political correctness police out for doughnuts while reading this book. Make no judgments—just enjoy McKennan’s clear writing style and his witty observations of human nature.

Bottom line, this is a good book for anyone interested in Alaska’s history, Natives, culture and heritage. McKennan, although not an Alaskan by birth or choice, nevertheless, like so many others, “got” Alaska and her people; he understood what it is that attaches people to this place.

It makes him an honorary Alaskan, at the very least.

Crash story one of survival – and reconnecting

Touching the Ancient One: A True Story of Tragedy and Reunion41Z14Ha2JEL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_

By Rupert Pratt

Wheat Mark

2006  $26.95



Alaska’s history is littered with aviation tragedies. According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the commercial aviation accident rate in Alaska is four times that of other states. And with a long list of well-known names lost in plane crashes – including Carl Ben Eielson’s disappearance in 1929, Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers in 1935, William Huatala’s death in 1943, and U.S. Reps. Nick Begich of Alaska and Hale Boggs of Louisiana in 1972 ‑ stories of gravity’s victory over man’s attempt to soar are numerous.

But Rupert Pratt’s memoir, “Touching the Ancient One: A True Story of Tragedy and Reunion,” is a story of a different type. As the title suggests, the book isn’t just about the crash, although that compelling story is the first half of the book. The story is really about Pratt and the men who survived a tragic accident – and how they reconnected years after the crash. It’s not so much a tragedy as a tale of survival and strength.

Rupert Pratt grew up in Salt Rock, WV, a rural area in the Appalachian Mountains. He joined the Army at age 20, because “in the early fifties, entering the military was almost a certainty for a healthy young man.” Although he deferred his services for several years while attending college, eventually, Pratt was tired of the process of deferrals and ready to begin his service. He wanted to be a pilot, but poor eyesight precluded that, and he was assigned to petroleum school for eventual work in “petroleum laboratories.” He was assigned to Ladd Air Force Base in 1953 for a two-year stint.

On his arrival, however, he found his petroleum lab was a myth; he and his buddies Ed Knapp and Don McDonough were assigned to drive oil and gas rigs, a dirty, smelly job that was far from the glamour Pratt had envisioned.

Pratt writes of his introduction to the Fairbanks cold, disillusionment with his assignment and his personal story of loves lost and found. It’s a meandering journey, first here, then there, throwing in an explanation as almost an after thought. It’s not the chronological, 1-2-3 order most of us expect when reading history, but it’s more real, as if we’re sitting down face-to-face with Pratt as he tells us stories about his life. The back story is necessary to help us understand how Pratt ended up on that C-47 that ill-fated day, and, like any real life journey, begins long before the actual event, with fits and starts along the way.

Pratt and his buddies learned there was a petroleum lab in Anchorage, but because Ladd was short-staffed, they were pretty much stuck in their dirty, smelly job. But finally, they were “loaned” to the Army’s lab in Ft.Richardson, TDY (temporary duty) for up to three months. They landed in Anchorage in November 1953; they were recalled back to Ladd on Feb. 3, 1954.

Pratt was told their loan to the Army was over; he was to notify Knapp and McDonough and be on a flight back to Fairbanks by Feb. 5. Atypically, he writes, he let the order to find a flight slip from his mind, and it wasn’t until late the next day that he was reminded – forcefully – by his superior.

“ ‘You get all squared away with air transport about your flight to Fairbanks?’ [Capt. Reardon] asked.

“I felt my knees go weak as I realized I’d forgotten to make arrangements. It had been nearly 24 hours since he’d given me the order to take care of it. It hadn’t crossed my mind all day.

“ ‘Sir,’ I managed to say. ‘I haven’t yet made those arrangements.’

“ ‘What! And why not?’

“ ‘I forgot, sir.’

“ ‘Dammit, soldier!’ he said loud enough for anyone within a hundred feet to hear. ‘I am not accustomed to having my orders disobeyed.’ His face was red.”

So it was that Pratt got himself and his friends on that unfortunate C-47 out of Elmendorf, finding himself plummeting to earth when the plane broke up over Denali National Park and his subsequent landing on Kesugi Ridge.

Sixteen men boarded that flight: Pratt, Knapp and McDonough, pilot Lt. Earl (Bob) Bescher, co-pilot Col. Edward Burge, crew chief Cpl. Richard Knickerbocker, and passengers Edward J. Fox, Eli LaDuke, Edward W. Olson, Huey T. Montgomery, Bobby G. Sallis, Edward Knapp, Edmund McMahon, Alvi Raymer, Jacob Siplivy, and Lt. Col. William West-Watson of the British Royal Air Force (assigned to the British Joint Military Services in the U.S.).

Six men survived the explosion, break-up and parachute-fall to the ground. The survivors were rescued by Bush pilots Cliff Hudson and Don Sheldon. The six men were airlifted to Elmendorf, where they underwent recovery and eventual reassignment. And life after that.

Such is retired schoolteacher Pratt’s writing skill that even though you know – you KNOW – that only six men walk away from the downed craft, the reader hopes along with the author for the safety of all of them. Pratt has tapped deeply into 40-year-old memories, bringing the reader vividly close to the experience – I felt the cold wind rushing through me as I fell from the plane, earned bruises from landing on unforgiving rock and waved frantically at an unseen plane flying overhead, hoping I would be seen.

But this book is not a mere survival tale. Pratt finishes out the first half by detailing his reaction after returning to Fairbanks – too much booze, time and what we would these days call Post-Traumatic Stress. But he pulled himself together, finished his military time, married his sweetheart and got on with his life.

Until 40 years later, when he began wondering about the other five survivors and the families of those who hadn’t survived. Who they had been, what they were like, how their families had fared. With the aid of his letters home (saved by his mom), newspaper clippings and a CD-ROM with all the residential telephone numbers in the U.S., Pratt began with the five men who had shared the mountain with him: Fox, La Duke, Olson, Montgomery and Sallis.

It was slow going, but eventually, Pratt found them. The story of his search is as compelling as the tale of the crash, because he is honest about the emotions dragged up from the wells of memory. He worried that the others wouldn’t want to remember the crash, and that the families of those who didn’t survive were resentful of those who had.

“The reunion idea just popped out,” he writes early in the chapter. “I guess the idea had occurred to me before, but I hadn’t given it much thought. Now it seemed the most logical thing in the world.”

And the others thought so too.

Eventually, Pratt found family members who were willing to talk about their lost loved ones – indeed, the forward to this half of the book was written by Keith Betscher, who was 20 months old when his father piloted his last flight.

Pratt writes vivid biographies of both the survivors and the victims, using information he garnered from family members, survivors’ stories and newspaper clippings. He speaks with wonder at the interest the reunions picked up – newspaper articles, a film documentary, and calls from families. Eventually, the survivors plan a trip to Kasugi Ridge, thus closing out a chapter in their lives that colored everything they did.

Pratt’s book is not just another plane crash story. It is literally a survival tale – not just surviving the actual crash, but surviving the ensuing years – the guilt of living while friends died, the pain of loss, the stress of getting back to the mundane job of waking up and being fruitful after such an intense experience. It is about overcoming fears –he eventually learns how to fly, thus slaying the final demon – and rejoicing in all that makes life sweet – family, friends and waking up each day.

Pioneers of Alaska blazed trails we still follow

Alaska Gold Trails Volume 3: The Pioneers315DiyzC5HL._BO1,204,203,200_

By Jim Madonna

A.P. Publishing, 2005




History matters.

We are a product of what happened before we were born; our lives have been shaped by those who blazed the trail ahead of us.

Alaska has an incredible past that lends itself to great stories, which, after all, is what history is: the story of the people before. And Alaskans seem to really enjoy listening to their elders and pioneers recall their exploits and experiences.

Jim Madonna, professor emeritus of mining extension at the University of Alaska, understands this. In the late 1980s, he hosted a radio show in Fairbanks featuring Alaskan pioneers, who spent an hour each week sharing their frontier adventures.

Madonna has since put his interview into a series of books called “Alaska Gold Trails.”

“The Pioneers,” volume three in the series, features such Alaskan notables as Ray Lester; Sandra Stillion; and Arnold “Swede” Wasvick.

From the beginning, Madonna makes no secret of his admiration and respect for the subjects of his interviews. “There are always challenges we dream of facing in our lives, but for some reason, known only to us personally, we never quite get around to them. … Fortunately. those of us interested in the rugged outdoor adventure associated with Alaska’s vast wilderness can live some of our dreams through the lives and experiences of the early frontiersmen and settling pioneers.”

There will be no ambush interviews, Madonna is teling the reader, no gleeful digging into secrets, no revelation of embarrassing or criminal pasts. Just a recounting of adventures, in the adventurer’s own words.

The format is strictly transcription from the taped interviews, exactly as heard on the radio shows. Madonna talks of the efforts made by his wife, Leah, in taping the shows and helping with guest selection. Friend Sharon Kessey transcribed the tapes, he continues, acknowledging the “long hours” she spent in the task.

But the real stars are the pioneers, telling their stories and showing Alaskans how this state was settled. Madonna introduces each player briefly in the introduction, giving just a hint of what the reader can expect. And he gets the adventurous juices flowing with this: “As you read these accounts of their colorful frontier lives and the obstacles they faced … perhaps one of their experiences will stir your restless spirit and spark an unresistable [sic] challenge that forces you to take the first step down the trail to that one last big frontier adventure—the fulfillment of you destiny.”

These are fascinating people, who came to Alaska before it was a state, who thrived through harsh winters. Miners, pilots, hunters, farmers—most came to Alaska from Outside, whether through the military or a thirst for adventure, and never left, having been bitten by the Alaskan spirit.

Their backgrounds are as varied as their experiences: Ed Ashby came up with his cousins in a 24-foot boat with a 1926 Dodge motor, the trip taking 29 days from Seattle to Ketchikan. He talks of the struggle, running out of food, having an error-filled chart and scrounging fish and deer along the way. Bob Jacobs, born in West   Chester, Penn., found his way here through an ad in Alaska Life magazine. Janet Cowgill migrated from Tennessee, after working in Chicago as a “Rosie (the Riveter)” for Hudson Motor Co.

Experiences range from wolf and walrus hunts to placer mining to living out in the Bush during the diphtheria crisis.

If I have any nitpicks with this book at all, it is that Madonna never really introduces his guests thoroughly. For someone new to Alaska, the names aren’t familiar, and the interviews don’t often lead to a clear understanding of the interviewee’s place in Alaska history. Madonna provides a brief glimpse of their lives after the radio show at the end, but it’s not enough for those true history buffs who want to know more.

I have to wonder if it was a deliberate omission on his part, giving those with a real interest a nudge to research and discover more about the early pioneers.

Whatever. This is a fascinating book, central to the understanding of what makes Alaska such a unique place. I highly recommend it.

The Coldest Crimes Aren’t Always Unsolved

Cold Crime: How police detectives solved Alaska’s most shocking cases9780974501444

by Tom Brennan

Illustrated by Brian Sostrom

Epicenter Press 2006






The first editor I ever had loved that word. Whenever he’d hear something going down on the scanner, he’d jump up and yell that word.

He used a deep, guttural voice that started deep in his chest and rumbled all the way up, so it sounded like a volcano letting go. He managed to make that one-syllable word last for 30 or
40 seconds, drawing it out so it sounded like this: CRI-I-I-I-I-IM-M-M-M-ME.

Maybe that’s why I love the police beat so much — when you learn from a guy who can’t get enough of it, there’s no way not to become a cop groupie. Which is why I enjoyed Tom Brennan’s books. I read his previous book, “Murder at 40 Below,” a compendium of horrific crimes in Alaska that had the residents fearful their Last Frontier was becoming the Wild West (I actually remember a few of those cases from my childhood in Anchorage).

Cold Crime: How Police Detectives Solved Alaska’s Most Shocking Cases, is more a police procedural than true crime documentary. Whereas in the first book, Brennan focused on the crimes, in this one, as the subhead indicates, he spends more time on what part the police and Alaska State Troopers had in solving 13 of Alaska’s more shocking crimes occurring within the last 50 years.

Brennan began his journalism career on the police beat, as most of us do. Brennan spent hundreds of hours interviewing detectives, investigators, troopers, and other police officers, asking them about their best work, collecting anecdotes and memories of cases that made headlines, and looking at evidence accumulated during the investigations.

Brennan has a dry, journalist style, which sometimes seems to lack compassion or empathy, but is appropriate for the type of stories he’s narrating. The crimes of which he writes aren’t minor misdemeanors or even slight felonies. He’s reporting on mayhem and violence, greed and passion killings, and too much passion or emotion might be overwhelming.

Of course, he’s not always the dry, dispassionate reporter, as evidenced by some of the titles he (or perhaps his editor, I’m not sure) chose: Ketchikan Burning; Mystery of Mendeltna Lodge; The Deadly Dentist; A Cold-Hearted Undertaker; well, you get the idea.

Before going into the crimes themselves, Brennan “profiles,” to use some law enforcement jargon, the investigators and detectives who solve crimes. He talks about what motivates them and how they manage to keep coming back to scenes of carnage and murder, day after day, without losing their humanity.

Most of us don’t think about the human equation in the solving of crime, except for maybe the victim. We sometimes forget investigators have families and friends, and we tend not to wonder how seeing the nastiness human beings inflict on each other affect one’s relationships with other human beings.

Brennan, whose son is an officer in the Soldotna Police department, can be forgiven for his often rah-rah rapport when talking up the members of law enforcement. But he does spell out what it takes to be a good cop and why many people would do no other job, despite the horrors and dangers often associated with it.

He also peels back the myths and mysteries of police work, explaining why investigators operate the way they do. In one paragraph in the Preface, he clarifies why officers often ask the same question over and over again, albeit in different form:

“Asking the same questions again and again and again in recast form often trips up the guilty. As one investigator put it, “‘People can tell the same truth over and over, but lies are hard to remember.’”

Didn’t Mom tell us that?

The cases he documents made state-wide headlines during their day: In the early 1950s, Ketchikan and its all-volunteer fire department were plagued by blazes that sprang up everywhere, unpredictable and unstoppable. By 1960, the blazes had become frequent and serious: Losses climbed and people were fearful — some even sent their children to live elsewhere for safety, Brennan reports.

The FBI got involved, and eventually, a volunteer fireman by the name of Bill Mitchell was identified as the firebug. He left the state, but returned numerous times before trial to set more fires, disguised as a woman. He eventually spent a few years in prison in Washington and returned to live in Manly Hot Springs.

Brennan documents the Anchorage dentist who, in the late 1960s, had numerous patients die of cardiac arrest in his chair; he over sedated and under-monitored, killing at least five patients before being caught. A public uproar arose when he was sentenced to six months in jail, suspended, and five years of probation, along with loss of his Alaska license.

And again in Anchorage — it’s just that it’s a big city, with more population, not that it’s a crime metropolis — in 1973, an undertaker was caught cheating customers, mistreating the dead, recycling caskets and liners, and cremating many bodies together.

The Fairbanks stripper who had her husband murdered by her lover rather than divorce him in 1972. Cab drivers, hikers, superfluous husbands, cheating wives; Spenard, Eagle River, Alyeska, Tazlina; stabbing, shooting — even a car bombing. There’s enough crime and justice to satisfy the most enthusiastic cop groupie.

Brennan has meticulously researched these 13 cases. He gives a great deal of background on both the locale and the criminals, and is able to describe the crimes without getting too graphic or putting in too many gory details; a result of his journalistic training, I imagine.

For true crime aficionados, this is a must-read. It’s also a good read for those who are interested in darker Alaskan history and the malevolence of some of our neighbors and friends. In conjunction with “Murder at 40 Below,” this is a different way of seeing the 49th state, and a reminder that the place most of us enjoy because of its lack of formality and crowds is exactly what attracts those with evil in their hearts.

Alaska Professor Takes To The Tundra To Find Mars

Finding Marsmars

By Ned Rozell

University of Alaska Press


Alaskans have odd ideas of fun. And scientists and writers will go to any lengths to get results or a story. So it should come as no surprise that science writer Ned Rozell, who writes the Science Forum column for the local paper, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, took a 900-mile snowmachine trek in wild Alaska just to see what permafrost scientist Kenji Yoshikawa of the University of Alaska Fairbanks does. That adventure became the basis for Rozell’s newest book, “Finding Mars.”

The trip, with Rozell, Yoshikawa, and Yoshikawa’s assistant, Tohru Saito, begins at Emmonak, a village of about 850 Native Alaskans at Kwiguk Pass, a tributary of the Yukon River. From there, the three will travel (if Yoshikawa’s “ambitious” schedule is realized) to Kotlik, Stebbins, St. Michael, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Nome, Teller, Brevig Mission, Wales, Shishmaref, Deering, and Kotzebue, in 16 days.

“Most scientists would budget in a few extra days for weather. Kenji is weatherproof,” Rozell writes by way of introduction.

Yoshikawa’s objective on this trip is to create a baseline measurement of temperatures in the stable permafrost that underlies these villages, in the hopes that 50 years from now, scientists will be able to reference his work. Another goal for the scientist is to conduct science outreach at the schools he stays at, to show Native kids the viability of a science career. He wants to instill the same love of science he has in others.

Rozell didn’t start out to write a book. His goal in accompanying Yoshikawa was to learn more about this intrepid, well-traveled scientist who was born in Japan and planned to get to the planet Mars before he died.

“I always thought Kenji was book-worthy,” Rozell said in an e-mail. But books take lots of time and money, and busy science writers don’t always have much of either.

A few weeks after the trip, Dan White, head of the Institute of Northern Engineering, approached both Yoshikawa and Rozell about a book on Yoshikawa’s studies. White said he’d find some funding to assist with the book, so Rozell got to work.

Yoshikawa was excited about the chance to further outreach science to students who might not ordinarily get a chance to study it in depth. A research professor, one of his projects is called Permafrost Outreach. He goes to many villages in the Interior and Northern Alaska, setting up permafrost temperature stations, and engages the students he encounters as he performs his science. He always takes time to talk to the classes. He is passionate about the work, he says, because while more difficult in arranging logistics, he is able to see how his studies – the thermal state of Alaskan soils – actually affects those who live on them.

Kenji Yoshikawa was born an explorer. Early on, in the western Tokyo section of Higashimurayama, he pored over a world atlas, yearning to discover places outside his home. “As a child,” Rozell writes, “he stared at maps of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea and wondered if they were somehow different, these seemingly connected oceans with different names.”

While in third grade, he hopped on his bicycle and headed west, using the sun for guidance, and biked to his grandmother’s house about 6 miles away. He’d only been there in the car with his parents, but he navigated his way to the house with little trouble. But Grandmother wasn’t home, so he jumped on the bike again and went to his cousin’s house, remembering visits there. This destination was about 20 miles away, but he made it unscathed.

And instead of being scolded or punished for his boldness, Yoshikawa’s father Tadao praised his son for his ingenuity.

“He smiled, listened, and wondered where his son got the gumption for such an expedition. Hearing Kenji’s enthusiastic chatter, Tadao confirmed a belief he’d had since Kenji was a baby – that his son was different from most Japanese people. He also had a feeling that the bike adventure was just the beginning.”

And indeed it was.

“Finding Mars” depicts Yoshikawa’s adventures beyond the bike ride – from the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, to navigating the Amazon River, to sleeping on an ice shelf in Greenland, to trekking the South Pole. Kenji Yoshikawa has “endure[d] more discomfort than most others he walks past in Fairbanks,” Rozell writes. Overwintering in a frozen saltwater lagoon in a stranded boat, Yoshikawa endured dark, cold, and loneliness, but he was “totally delighted.”

The book is an account of the snowmachine trek, but it is much more than just a travelogue. Rozell captures the essence of Yoshikawa – his daring, inquisitive nature, gregariousness when sharing science, and his utter unflappability when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in Alaska. Interspersed are scenes of Yoshikawa’s childhood in modern Japan, home to 3,000 people per square mile. The book is filled with pictures from Yoshikawa’s archives – Kenji as a Boy Scout, Yoshikawa with his first boat in Okinawa, Yoshikawa the scientist drilling holes in permafrost in Alaska.

One picture, showing Kenji and his mother at the beach, brought back another memory of Kenji’s explorations – when he was 5, he wandered away while his parents and older brother were clamming. When they found him with the attendant, the attendant was laughing. When asked why, he said, “When he came up to me, instead of saying he was lost like other children, he said, ‘Can you help me? My parents got lost.’”

Rozell has given us an excellent picture of a hard-driving personality who has places to go and things to do – but who is also amazingly adaptable – “paradoxical,” in Rozell’s words.

“It’s hard to keep up with Kenji when he’s traveling – there’s not much down time,” Rozell said of his subject. “But it’s always an adventure, and I like adventure.”

Another difficulty in working with Yoshikawa, at least at first, was his accent. Having learned English as a second language, he has a thick accent, so occasionally it is difficult to catch what he says at first, Rozell confesses. “The more time I spend with him, the better I am at picking up what he’s saying,” he says.

When asked about having a shadow, someone watching and recording everything you do, Yoshikawa had high praise for Rozell’s assistance on the trip.

“My work needs a lot of pictures of what we are doing; however, we couldn’t [get] enough staff and time to [do it.] Ned did cover most of our weak points.”

If there’s anything Rozell hopes readers get from this book, it is this: “Passion will take you far.” But more importantly, “[w]hen you have a solid plan, people respect it. The universe does too. Things will work out no matter how crazy your plan, as long as you believe.”

Yoshikawa hopes people will see how science is done – it isn’t magic, it’s hard work, stubborn will, and using technology to the greatest extent possible. Expeditions have changed over time – from sextants to GPS, satellite phones instead of ham radios. But the science is the same.

“We are lucky to live in both eras,” Yoshikawa says.

At the end of the trip, after weeks of grueling rides and crummy Alaska weather, the travelers return home, weary but triumphant.

Rozell ends his book:

“The little boy who wanted to go to Mars will probably never get there. Kenji has studied Martian permafrost and is an ideal candidate for such a mission, but for all his drive, even he can’t overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. … Spend some time with Kenji, though, and you get the sense that walking on Mars doesn’t matter that much to him, perhaps not as much as it did a few decades ago. Maybe, after leaving footprints on Sahara dunes and wincing as the Antarctic wind nibbled his cheeks … he has seen enough to give a Martian a good briefing about what his home planet is all about. And maybe, in this landscape buckled with frost polygons that still hold the cold from 20,000 years ago, Kenji has found his Mars.”

The Adventure Doesn’t Stop Just Because the Temperature Drops

65 Below51LZZhhVyZL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_
By Basil Sands
Sandman Products of Alaska


Albanians. North Koreans. Lost love. Abandoned military secrets. Bone-chilling cold. Marcus “Mojo” Johnson meets all of these disparate elements when he retires to his old homestead in Salt Jacket, Alaska, after a career in the military, in Basil Sands’ novel 65 Below.

Johnson, who we will meet in another Sands novel, Midnight Sun, wants nothing more than to live a quiet, subsistence lifestyle off the grid in his small dry cabin in the tiny town on the outskirts of Eielson Air Force Base. After decades as a special ops Marine, carrying out secret missions in every terrorist-ridden hotspot in the world, Johnson has returned home, older, tired, and still heartbroken over losing his long-time love Lonnie Wyatt. But trouble seems to follow Mojo wherever he goes – or maybe he’s just one of those guys who just gets dropped into trouble, his Fate forever being to save the world. No matter.

The novel begins on a cold, cold night in the depths of winter, with a regional blackout darkening the Interior. An electric company employee checks the substation to determine the cause, and discovers evidence of tampering and other mysteries. This brings the Alaska State Troopers into the picture, and Lt. Lonnie Wyatt just happens to be on duty when the call comes in.

At the same time, Johnson is almost killed by a speeding electric company truck on the highway, and he goes to the nearest store to call it in to the troopers. While discussing the incident with the storekeeper, two men enter the store, speaking Albanian, which Johnson – he with an amazing talent for languages – understands. He feigns ignorance, though, because something just doesn’t smell right. When the men leave, the troopers are called. Johnson takes his leave, having a trapline to run early the next morning.

Meanwhile, the troopers are finding evidence of weirdness and perhaps terrorism in the electric outage. When the stolen company vehicle is discovered in a Farmers Loop neighborhood, the trooper discovering it is killed, which brings down a storm of troopers (pun intended).

While Johnson is running his friend’s trapline on Eielson, he finds a group of North Koreans digging furiously into an old bunker. Their methods and secrecy imply a military motivation, and Johnson overhears some things he finds very suspicious (yes, he speaks Korean, too). He tries to get the authorities at Eielson involved, but they ignore him; one MP threatens to have him arrested. So he goes to Fort Wainwright, where he finds a number of old friends stationed in positions helpful to a man trying to thwart what looks to be an attempted terrorist act.

Johnson’s Special Forces friends accompany him to the spot where he found the Koreans, and a bloody firefight ensues, leaving Johnson and his friends with a bunch of very dead Tangos (military speak for terrorist) and one prisoner of war, a frightened chemist.

From here, the action speeds into warp, with the troopers, the military, a very unlikeable FBI agent, and Johnson, along with Wyatt and a pipeline security guard, trying to prevent a devastating plague from being unleashed in the Last Frontier. Along the way, Johnson recalls his near-death experience and fights in Sierra Leone, rekindles his relationship with Lonnie, and kicks the crud out of a bunch of bad guys.

It’s obvious this is an earlier book from Sands, as there are a few missteps, mostly typos and misspellings. But the affinity for story-telling and character building are evident, and the painstaking details show a writer who knows his craft and his subject very well. It’s also evident Sands is an Alaskan, especially in his loving descriptions of the landscape, and even Johnson’s dry cabin, a dwelling and lifestyle that would be considered primitive in most places, but is ubiquitous in Alaska. Sands details the Alaska life quite well – we see Johnson’s cabin, feel the sweat as he cuts cord upon cord of wood for his stove, shiver in the 65-below cold as it numbs our faces. But the details are never overwhelming or just for show – they add to the story but never detract from it, making this an effortless read.

Thrillers set in Alaska are very rare, and usually written by Outsiders who haven’t spent much time here. Sands is very good, combining all the elements of a good thriller with the details of our wonderful state, making for a jolly good read.


Terrorists Work Non-Stop When the Sun Doesn’t Set

Midnight Sun51jL-ozVXZL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_

By Basil Sands

Sandman Products of Alaska, 2012




When you think about terrorism and plots to kill and maim the president of the United States and as many civilians as possible, you don’t usually picture the action taking place in Anchorage, Alaska. I mean, what’s in Alaska that would even bring the president in the first place? And how would a terrorist cell manage to get the needed materials in a state that relies on barged- and flown-in supplies every few days? The supply line alone would be problematic.

But Anchorage author Basil Sands is undaunted by the challenges, and barges ahead with his thriller. Fairbanks-based Alaska State Trooper Lonnie Johnson is in town with her husband, retired Marine Corps Special Ops officer Marcus Johnson (AKA ‘Mojo’), to attend the wedding of two good friends. Eight months pregnant, Lonnie envisions her time in Anchorage as one of relaxing with her husband while seeing her friends off on their honeymoon.

Her plans are ghastly disrupted when the newlyweds, pulling out of the driveway after the reception, are smashed by a speeding car, which kills them instantly, along with the driver of the other car. Lonnie witnesses the accident, and is devastated and angry. Her stubborn intent to discover just why the other driver was going hell-bent for leather on a narrow, winding road in a residential area leads her and Marcus to the local FBI office, where they work with Mike and Hilda Farris to find out what is going on.

They are led through numerous twists and turns, indulge in some night-time reconnaissance, take a detour when Lonnie is threatened by an old nemesis she put in jail, and find themselves always one step behind the cunning man who has put a stunning plan into motion.

As Lonnie, Mojo, Mike, and Hilda are drawn further into the intrigue, they discover the world of international spyfare and war, learning more about the U.S. Government’s black ops around the world, and particularly, the chaos that is the Middle East. And they discover a shadowy figure once called Al Gul, birth name Kharzai Ghiassi, who has been a double agent for the CIA for decades. He has helped the U.S. agency capture and kill numerous al Qaeda and other terrorist organizational leaders, not just for the money, but because he believes the blind fanaticism is dangerous to him and all like him.

But something has caused him to turn against his former employers – to work against them with the same blind hatred he once condemned. As the Alaskans get closer to Ghiassi and his plans, they discover what truly motivates a man to hate. And why this particular motive cannot be derailed – only by stopping the man can they stop the plot.

Turns out, in a bit of coincidence, the U.S. president is going to be in Anchorage, a bit of information only a master spy could have discovered and exploited with enough time to disrupt the event with mayhem and blood.

Sands, with a background in the Marines and Department of Defense, knows his ops and thriller well. The story is well-plotted, enough so that what could seem to be major coincidences not possible actually become plausible in his hands. A resident of Anchorage, he has his characters in and out of places not on the usual tourist route, giving the story depth and a feeling of familiarity. His characters are well defined, growing and becoming more real with each page. None are caricatures – Lonnie, far from being a Super trooper, struggles with swollen ankles, gas, clumsiness, and all the other discomforts of late pregnancy. The two FBI agents are far from robotic suits with hidden agendas and disdain for the locals.

But it is in Ghiassi that Sands shows his character-building skills. This is a man who has been double-dealing his entire life, who always talks with double and triple meaning, but rather than the cold-hearted, emotionless bastard out to destroy the world, the Ghiassi who turns on his CIA masters and the United States is a man with a deep hurt and blinding anger, who cannot see anything but that anger, or feel anything but that hurt, and, like a child, wants to hurt those who hurt him. And yet, he shows glimpses of good, some murmurs of his former self. He even saves Lonnie’s life at one point, even though he knows she’s bound and determined to find him and ruin his plan.

Thrillers are fun reads—exotic locales, fascinating people, intriguing drama — if they have been plotted right. Sands has done his work well, and this one is all the more fun because it’s set in the most exotic and fascinating place of all – my own backyard.