Can a tough Alaskan learn to trust anyone else?

mdunham@adn.comApril 20, 2013 

Leigh Newman spent her youngest years fishing, hiking, rafting, hunting and generally enjoying the great out of doors in Alaska. Then her parents divorced and her mother took her to Baltimore.

The move sent the second-grader into culture shock. "I'd never spent any time on the East Coast," she said. "People cared what your last name was, where you went to college, things that didn't seem to matter in Alaska. I had never encountered those things. It was hard for me to get over until I was 18 and left."

Newman's childhood adventures and subsequent struggles to unlearn aspects of self-reliance ingrained in her Alaska upbringing and square it with the codes of the greater world is the subject of her new memoir, "Still Points North" (Dial Press), which came out in March.

Part of the book was recently published in Vogue magazine. Best-selling author Hannah Tinti extolled its "exquisitely written pages." Karen Russell, author of "Swamplandia," called it "a travel memoir of the mapless, dangerous seas and territories between childhood and adulthood."

The travelogue comparison is appropriate; Newman has spent much of her working life as an international travel writer. Today she's deputy editor at oprah.com. "I write essays, review books, work on the Oprah book club and supervise other editors," she said.

It left little time for writing. "I had to get up at 3 and 4 in the morning," she said. "And I never get up early except to go fishing or skiing. I like sleep."

She was motivated, she said, not by a desire to recount her outdoor exploits, but a larger theme. "I wanted to write a book about what happens when self-reliance turns into a sort of self-exile," she said.

Few kids in Baltimore were ever as self-reliant as the 8-year-old Newman, who regularly made cross-country flights between her parents in an era when "lots of kids were sort of raising themselves. My case was just a more extreme example."

Born in Los Angeles, Newman came to Alaska at the age of 2 or 3 weeks. Her father, a doctor, had just finished medical school and taken a job at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Her description of him as "the Great Alaskan Dad" opens the book. "He flies his plane on floats in the summer and on skis in the winter. The hunts for caribou, moose, wild sheep, wild goats, geese and ducks, plus fishes for halibut, salmon and trout. ... The Great Alaskan Dad can sew on his own buttons, patch his own waders, repack his own shotgun shells and repair his own outboard motor, even as the boat is filling with water in the middle of the ocean. The Great Alaskan Dad can land a Piper Cub on a 150-foot-long gravel bar, which is technically impossible according to all aviation authorities. He can outrun a grizzly bear ... with a hundred pounds of freshly dressed moose on his back."

Newman grew up at his side, fishing for halibut from a rowboat, hunting sheep in the Wrangell Mountains and, yes, running from bears. The first part of her book recounts harrowing close calls. She suspects the nearest fatal event came when an updraft sent the Cessna holding her father and herself to 20,000 feet and they began to turn blue in the thin air. Fortunately a counter draft brought them back down safely, but it was the only time she could remember him actually saying that they might be in trouble. "When we got back, he said, 'Don't tell your stepmother.' "

"He raised me in a really great way," Newman said. "One of the most valuable skills you can have is learning how to survive."

Despite the attractions of Baltimore -- brick houses, back yard swimming pools, grass, sidewalks and fascinating thunderstorms -- the independent, "know-it-all" 8-year-old Newman chafed at its rules.

"Going to a girls school where you had uniforms, a strict curriculum and were expected to do your homework was a very hard adjustment for me," she said. "Still those are the rules of the larger world in many ways, and it's always good to know the rules, even if you don't jive with them."

But the biggest adjustment didn't have to do with dress or manners. It had to do with the price one pays to be a great Alaska kid.

"I wasn't ready to trust other people. It was a hard thing for me to wrestle with. I don't think I'm alone in that. I see a lot of people in our culture of achievement always pushing expectations about their work and doing well higher and higher. People don't know how to relate to one another. That's what I was interested in talking about."

It was a "long and extreme process," she said, but she eventually had to confront her deep-seated do-it-yourselfism when she got married in 2002. (She and her husband, who manages a New York architectural business, have two sons, now 3 and 7.) That struggle occupies the latter part of the book.

"It was harder than digging an outhouse or sleeping in the dirt," she said. "I had to learn that relying on yourself doesn't mean not trusting others.

"I guess that's a double negative. I use them all the time. There's safety in negatives. When you're prepared for the worst case scenario, the double negative is your friend."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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