Son of a Midnight Land
By Atz Kilcher. Blackstone Publishing, 2018. 306 pages. $27.99 hardcover.
Atz Kilcher, author of a new memoir, is famous for being the father of singer-songwriter Jewel as well as the patriarch of the Kilcher clan, as seen on the Discovery Channel's "Alaska: The Last Frontier." His book, its title making a play on Alaska as the "land of the midnight sun," captures aspects of his life growing up on a Homer homestead and later building his own life as an athlete, cowboy, parent and grandparent.
Reading this book is much like sitting with a good storyteller, perhaps around a campfire, and listening to him talk. That is, it's a rambling story, charming in its way, but rough and repetitive as a book. It is at its best when it simply tells stories, as opposed to the psychological analysis and life philosophizing it frequently sinks into.
The fourth of eight children and the elder son, Atz was born in 1947 to Swiss immigrants Yule and Ruth Kilcher. Yule Kilcher, who died in 1998, remains an iconic Alaska pioneer; he served as a delegate to the state's constitutional convention and later as a one-term senator. He is also known for having made a color documentary of the family's early life on the homestead, a film he presented throughout Europe; a version of this, "A Pioneer Family in Alaska," is still available.
Ruth Kilcher, less well-known, was a power in her own right — managing not just the children but the homestead by herself much of the time, while also succeeding as a poet, writer and active member of the Homer community. She left the marriage and Alaska in 1969.
The Kilcher children were raised the homestead way — to garden, fish, haul coal and water, butcher animals, make do with what they had or could make, and to sing and play music. They were sometimes known as Alaska's von Trapp ("The Sound of Music") family.
Any romantic notions applied to that life are put to rest in this memoir. The major theme of the book is the cruelty exacted by father Yule onto first-born son Atz (and to a lesser degree, the rest of the family). Kilcher's experience at his father's hands were of dealing with explosive anger, belittling, humiliation and physical hurt. The self-described "homestead hick" and chronic liar, who eventually went on to become a social worker schooled in psychology, goes to great lengths to examine the character and pressures that made his father a mean tyrant. He goes to even greater lengths to examine his own behaviors, which included stealing from his friends as a youth, turning to alcohol and being abusive to his own children.
The motivation behind the book seems largely to be a self-examination and apology to the author's own four now-adult children. Some of it is written as letters to them, and other passages simply speak to them. It's an earnest book, a work of honest, critical self-exposure.
In the end, this is a redemptive book about breaking patterns of family dysfunction and becoming a better person who can love and be loved. Kilcher, who was married four times, has clearly been through a lot of therapy; he references this and his passion for self-help books many times and is fond of using words like "dysfunction," "trigger," "unresolved issues" and "inner child."
Along the way, individual chapters recount episodes of moose hunting, cow wrangling, yodeling, horse riding, cross-country ski racing, caring for his son after an accident, and learning to be an Opa — a grandfather. The pages also include occasional song lyrics that, appearing on the page like poems, contribute little to the story.
There's also a lot left out. Bare references are made to Kilcher's two years at a private school in Europe, his military service and conversion to Mormonism, any of his marriages, his single-parenting, his alcoholism and sobriety, his careers (performer, social worker, music teacher, artist), his adjustments to having a famous daughter, or his own fame as a TV star. (His contract with the Discovery Channel no doubt forbids him to say anything about the behind-the-scenes experience of posing as a cowboy facing life-or-death circumstances in every episode.)
A reader might understandably want to learn more about the years of performing with his children, his larger life as a performer and artist, or what turned him away from self-medicating his damaged spirit. And perhaps less about his very difficult relationship with his father.
Daughter Jewel's 2015 memoir, "Never Broken," a tell-all celebrity book, is nearly as damning of her father's abusive behavior as her father is of his father's. (Father and daughter eventually reconciled, as did son and father in Yule's later life.)
Readers who will most enjoy this book are Alaskans who want a look behind homestead mythology, those intrigued by the Kilcher reality TV show (and there are many admirers, judging by its 3 million viewers and survival into a seventh season), and anyone dealing with father-son conflicts and looking for some guidance.