Reading the north

The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale

By Craig Mishler (University of Nebraska Press)

The blurb: The story of a blind man and a loon is a living Native folktale told across Alaska and the Arctic and into the Great Plains that involves a blind man who is betrayed by either his mother or wife but whose vision is restored by a loon. Folklorist Craig Mishler traces the story's emergence across Greenland and North America.


Excerpt: "'The Blind Man and the Loon' belongs to a genre of stories variously known in Inuktitut as unikkausiq or unipkaat. Such stories are set in the distant past when humans could transform themselves into animals and vice-versa. Unikkausiq are distinguished from unikkaatuaq or quliaqtuat, the latter being legendary stories set in more recent past featuring characters who are directly related to present-day people. The Eskimo subtype is partly identifiable on the basis of the motif of the cruel mother or stepmother blinding her son at the very outset, although occasionally this motif is replaced by a cruel grandmother blinding her grandson. Either way the woman's aggression is accomplished either through sorcery or through chemicals thrown on the boy's eyes while he is sleeping. Her motive is selfish -- she is too lazy to process all of the meat and skins her son or grandson brings home."

Alaska's Tanana Valley Railroads

By Daniel L. Osborne (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99)

The blurb: Part of the Images of Rail series that celebrates the history of rail, trolly, streetcar and subway transportation across the country, this book provides pictures and details about the railroad that served Fairbanks and the gold mining operations in the area during the early 1900s.


Excerpt: "In 1902, very rich placer gold deposits were discovered in creeks near present-day Fairbanks. At that time, there existed only a few primitive trails and river routes in all of Alaska. Only the largest rivers provided dependable transportation, and then only when there were ice-free. Sometimes even in summer, low water or rapids prevented their use by steam driven stern-wheeler boats. In winter, even small rivers could be used for transportation, but mainly only for personnel and lightweight freight pulled on sleds by dogs.

"The usual 'rush' that followed this discovery resulted in many rich small mining operations 20 to 40 miles from the nearest river transportation. The routes to the mines included miles of bog and wet tundra. Any digging into the vegetation mat that covered the frozen ground to make a wagon trail frequently revealed a frozen mixture of soils and water called permafrost. Once the permafrost started melting after the removal of vegetation, the water either ran away and left a hole or mixed with the soil to produce deep muddy ponds with icy bottoms."


Sea Star Wishes: Poems From the Coast

By Eric Ode, illustrated by Erik Brooks (Sasquatch Books, $16.99)

The blurb: The poetry book for children focuses on life in sea and on the shore, from lighthouses, ferries, fish and crabs.


Excerpt: "Let's search

for the sea urchin

here in the salty spray,

where sunlight shines

on his stay-away spines,

flashing red and purple

in a storm of gray.


Let's search

for the sea urchin,

you and me.

We'll find him alone,

clinging to a tide pool stone,

that thistly,


hedgehog of the sea."


Compiled by Matt Sullivan, Anchorage Daily News