Cabin, Clearing, Forest

By Zach Falcon; University of Alaska Press; Alaska Literary Series; $16.95

The blurb: "People break my heart. Every single one of them does." In settings that range from rural fishing communities to the urban capital, the stories of "Cabin, Clearing, Forest" are a lyrical road map to the human landscape of contemporary Alaska. In "Blue Ticket," a stranger finds solace in a Juneau homeless encampment. Old friends argue over the pleasures and perils of small-town life in "A Beginner's Guide to Leaving Your Hometown," and in "Every Island Longs for the Continent," a young family falls apart after moving to Kodiak. In these 13 stories, Zach Falcon explores the burdens of familiarity and the pains of estrangement through characters struggling to find their place in the world.

Excerpt: The Bowers were gone from Kodiak for most of July. Shortly after they returned, they stood naked on their front lawn, Brian and Clare, Emily and Tess. They stood holding hands, silent and unclothed.

We gawked as we drove by. Traffic stopped. We stood in clumps across the street as the police came and covered them and separated them and hid them away. And we were relieved, because we wanted them to be covered and hidden. We gathered to gossip about it at the post office and Tony's Bar. We shifted on our stools, and we said that the cops should sort it out and that DFYS should sort it out. The Bowers had called these furies into their lives and would have to live with them. This was not our problem.

"It's not like they were hippies or anything," said Rod Vester, setting down his beer, wiping his mouth. "It's just weird." We set down our beers and agreed. It was weird. No one could have seen it coming.

Brian and Clare had moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania. They came willingly to our island of spruce trees and rain and canneries and bars. He taught fourth grade at our elementary school. Refrigerators throughout town were decorated with the artwork of his students, our children. He coached the junior girls' basketball team.

He was a good teacher and admired for it. We were happy to have him in our town.

Clare was a volunteer at the museum. She had studied our past and every summer she guided tourists through our small collection of artifacts, explaining the Aleut, Russian and American footprints on the island. She handled our heirlooms with reverence. The masks, the lacquer boxes, the steel harpoon tips. She knew the history of Kodiak better than we did. She brought coffee to homeless Old Jacob Panamarioff when he sat carving on the bench outside the museum door. Old Jacob would smile for her, crinkling the weathered skin around his dark eyes. Tourists thought she was a local.

The Bowers bought the large white house on the hill downtown when Emily was born. Tess was born two years after. Brian painted a loud blue B on the front of the house, marking it as their home. They entertained often, and we were invited. The Bowers hosted a Fourth of July picnic on their lawn every year. Their house was on the paved road, so the parade passed right by. We would wave and catch the wrapped taffy thrown in fistfuls from the fire truck. The Bowers lived in Kodiak as publicly as a sidewalk tree.

Escape to Alaska

By Mary Wasche; self-published; $12.50

The blurb: In 1963, a young Minnesota wife arrives, exhausted, at the long tunnel leading to Whittier, one of the strangest towns in America. She's driven the Alaska Highway alone, fleeing her husband after witnessing him commit a murder. While earthquake-scarred Whittier is the perfect haven due to its geographic isolation, not everyone is as they seem and most harbor secrets of their own.

Excerpt: Lila dug into her purse and handed him a picture of a dark-haired, sullen-looking man. Paul studied the picture and shifted his gaze to Lila before tucking it into his pocket. His eyebrows knit. "Do you know someone in Whittier? Got a place to stay?"

She shook her head.

"Does anybody know you're here?" he asked, his voice deepening with concern.

"Nobody. Oh, wait. There's a couple I met in Montana where I stayed one night on the drive. They're the ones who told me about Whittier and how to get here." She spread her hands and added, "But I didn't tell anybody where I was going when I left home. I just took off." Reassured by the kindness in Paul's eyes, she added, "I just need to get through that tunnel. Then I'll figure things out."

Paul stuck the pen and tablet back into his pocket and shook his head. "You know there aren't any motels or hotels in Whittier. There isn't even one single house." At her look of dismay, Paul's voice rose. "Hey, don't worry. I live there, and I have a friend who'll probably let you stay with her 'til you get things figured out. But Whittier's a real strange place. Not like any other town in America." Lila stared at him wordlessly while he added, "I'll be there when you get to the other side of the tunnel. Then I'll take you to meet my friend, Nan. Okay?"

Lila managed to nod, and he glanced over his shoulder. "Well, I need to get back to work now. It's almost time to start loading the flatcars, and a few more vehicles just got here, so I have to check 'em in."

Paul turned and walked away. Lila's head grew light. She leaned back against the car, fighting dizziness. What had she done, coming to this strange place all alone? And now ready to rely on a man she didn't even know?

She drew in deep calming breaths. It seemed so long ago that she'd headed west out of St. Paul on impulse, dazed with terror, driving on and on through solitary, dream-like days, following the map west and north. She hardly remembered eating or drinking, and the gas stations and decrepit motels along the Alcan Highway were only a blur.

The all-consuming trance had begun to lessen only minutes ago at the sight of the wooden building with the red and white billboard across the roof proclaiming; WELCOME TO THE ALASKA RAILROAD. PORTAGE DEPOT. WHITTIER TUNNEL. The brittle sense of unreality that had consumed her for these past two weeks began to fade now that she was finally here and about to get through the tunnel to refuge.

She turned and sank back into the driver's seat, filled with relief. But that relief was quickly replaced by growing doubt. Why would she trust what a stranger was telling her? A nearly overwhelming sense of impending doom followed.

What if this doesn't work? Where will I go?