Each year our book reviewers, Nancy Lord and David A. James, pore over dozens of literary releases, finding the best books that are written by Alaska authors or tell stories about life in the Last Frontier. From nonfiction to fiction, poetry and memoirs, they review more than 50 of those selections annually — and at year’s end, they select their favorites. Here are their picks for 2018:
NANCY LORD’S FAVORITES
It was my pleasure this year to review on these pages two dozen new books related to Alaska or the North. Here are five of my favorites. Each one tells us something about life in Alaska as experienced by Alaskans or clear-eyed visitors to Alaska. How was it to grow up here? What might a traveler, by ferry or canoe, discover? What very special places deserve our attention, and what are their connections to our history and people?
By Kim Rich; Alaska Northwest Books, 2018; 238 pages; $16.95 paperback
Kim Rich is known to many Alaskans as the author of the 1993 memoir “Johnny’s Girl: A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld.” This now-classic tells her story of living in Anchorage in the 1960s and ’70s as the daughter of Johnny Rich, a professional gambler and owner of “massage parlors” and a mentally ill, institutionalized mother. When her father was murdered in 1973, Rich, age 15, became an orphan.
“A Normal Life” picks up where “Johnny’s Girl” left off. Rich wanted nothing more than “a normal life” after the instability and tragedy of her early years. It won’t give too much away to say that she found that life, not without plenty of adventure along the way. This second memoir is a tribute to strength of character and the kindness of friends, parental figures, and strangers. It affirms the resilience of the human spirit and belief in the goodness of others.
In addition to being Rich’s truly rich personal story, “A Normal Life” offers an insightful portrait of Alaska in the 1970s and ’80s, a time when there was still both a small-town closeness in the state and enormous opportunities for young people.
By Patrice Gopo; W Publishing Group, 2018; 224 pages; $16.99 paperback
Patrice Gopo, formerly Patrice Harduar, grew up in Anchorage as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. In her beautifully written, insightful and ultimately loving memoir in the form of essays, she takes readers on her journey across the world and into the social and racial issues of our time.
Anchorage in the 1980s and ‘90s was nowhere near as diverse as it has become, and Patrice and her sister grew up living in a largely white world. Their parents, moreover, as Jamaica immigrants of African and Indian descent, had little experience of black American culture. Gopo convincingly describes their lives as “tamarind balls” — mixtures of Jamaican roots and an American life. When she got to college she formed friendships with African-Americans and also became more acquainted with racism. Later essays address her experiences working in Africa and then living in North Carolina.
In our nation’s time of racial strife, immigration politics and general divisiveness, “All the Colors We Will See” is a very welcome addition to the open-hearted discussion we all should be having. Gopo does not try to tell us how to live; she simply shows us how it has been for her to be herself — a person of intelligence and faith, an “other” who is finding her way. Her sensitive but direct questioning and her eloquent prose make this book a joy to read.
By Mark Adams; Dutton, 2018; 323 pages; $28
Alaskans are rightfully skeptical when writers from Outside, perhaps especially New Yorkers, arrive in our state to tell the story of the Last Frontier. It’s rare that they bring much more than a “gee-whiz — there-are-are-a-lot-of-bears-and-crusty-characters-here” understanding to what they experience.
Thus, it’s a real pleasure to discover a new, well-researched book that defies expectations and presents a lively and insightful story worthy of broad readership. Mark Adams, the author of other well-regarded travel books, here brings together the story of the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition with his own travels around the state, with side excursions into related topics including our state’s financial and political situation.
Without being able to replicate the Harriman journey by private ship, Adams rode the state ferry to visit as many Harriman stops as he could. For locations beyond ferry reach, he flew. The 3,000 miles of his subtitle are a rough calculation of his water, ground and air travel. A helpful map shows both his ferry route as far as Dutch Harbor and then his extensions to much of the rest of coastal Alaska, including Nome and Shishmaref.
“Tip of the Iceberg,” with its fresh descriptive writing, strong character development and presentation of contemporary Alaska within a historical framework, is a valuable contribution to our state’s literature. Longtime Alaskans as well as newcomers and visitors will find much to appreciate here.
By Adam Weymouth; Little, Brown, 2018; 352 pages; $28 hardcover, $14.99 e-book, $25.98 audiobook
Adam Weymouth, a Brit, spent the summer of 2016 (and a portion of 2017) canoeing 2,000 miles of the Yukon River for the purpose of learning about the river’s king salmon and the people and communities that depend upon them. What he learned along the way provides some very useful insights into history, biology, cultural matters and the ever-present conflicts surrounding fishery management, not just on the Yukon but throughout what remains of salmon country.
Weymouth descended the river as king salmon — and then other salmon species — passed, going in the other direction. All along his route, Weymouth recounts the natural environment through which he passes — not only the life of salmon, but the boreal forest, the shrieks of falcons and hums of insects, the rain, the silty river, inevitable moose and bears. The author’s greater concern, though, is for the people along the river. He stopped, sometimes for several days at a time, at communities and fish camps.
The author adroitly weaves in background information about the history of salmon and salmon management, salmon biology, the effects of hatcheries and fish farms, climate change, Alaska Native claims, the history of boarding schools and efforts at assimilation, traditional knowledge, salmon processing operations and much more. He brings to life the interconnectedness of our world — here in Alaska our salmon and our families and cultures and, globally, our foods, people with the natural world, and influences including climate change. He proves an excellent companion for traveling such a wide and winding river.
By Debbie S. Miller; photography by Hugh Rose; Braided River/Mountaineers Books, 2018; 176 pages; $29.95
Well-known Alaska writer Debbie Miller teamed up with naturalist-guide and photographer Hugh Rose to produce this gorgeous large-format book that celebrates a very special part of wild Alaska, “where land and sea are woven together.” The high-quality photos speak loudly for their subjects — mountains and glaciers, wildlife, tiny flowers, striations on rock, bluest ice. The well-informed and often lyrical text details both Miller’s personal explorations of the area and its cultural and natural history.
This is a book with a mission, and that mission is not only to share an amazing place with readers but to advocate for its protection. The specific area of Prince William Sound is what’s known as the Nellie Juan-College Fiord Wilderness Study Area. Miller avoids the awkwardly long title by calling it, simply, the “Chugach wilderness.” It covers most of the western half of Prince William Sound, from Elrington Island in the south into the Chugach Mountains and their glaciers in the north. It was set aside in 1980 to be studied for future wilderness designation, but, to date, Congress has not acted on the studies and recommendations made by the U. S. Forest Service.
Get this book for the beautiful and inspiring photographs, but then read every page of Miller’s text. Marbled and Kittlitz’s murrelets, ghost forests, staircase meadows, the return of sea otters, the legacy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the origin of the name “Chugach” — these are all here. You may even be moved to action — to work toward stewardship and permanent wilderness protection for, as Miller calls it, “this precious piece of the planet.”
DAVID JAMES' FAVORITES
Looking back on the books I reviewed for 2018, I find that all five of my favorites concern history. This year there’s a two-way tie for the top spot, while the other three fall in no particular order.
By Frederick James Currier; foreword by Randy Zarnke; Publication Consultants/Alaska Trappers Association, 2018; 176 pages; $17.95 paperback, $8.99 Kindle
In 1894, Frederick James Currier headed to Alaska quite literally on less than a day’s notice to prospect for gold, and spent most of the next decade in the north country. The memoir he wrote after his return was left in the keeping of his family. Eventually it found its way to the archives in Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where it was brought to the attention of Fairbanks writer and history enthusiast Randy Zarnke. With the help of the Alaska Trappers Association, which he heads, he brought it to print.
This is an exceptionally well-written account of life in Alaska before and during the Gold Rush that is rich with details on mining, hunting, running rivers, surviving the brutal winters of the Interior, interacting with Natives and much more. Currier’s prose is vivid, economical, often quite humorous and always engaging. With a few words he can have readers feeling like they’re down in a mine shaft or ascending the Chilkoot. His account of frontier justice in Circle City is as chilling as the January air the convict was sent out into when he was banished from town. This book has both literary and historical merit, and shouldn’t be missed.
By Ken McGoogan; HarperCollins Canada/Patrick Crean Editions, 2017; 448 pages; $33.99 Canadian (available in the U.S. through Amazon)
This overview of the search for the Northwest Passage is both wonderfully written and an excellent resource for fitting the Franklin Expedition, the Arctic’s most deadly calamity, into its broader historical and cultural perspective. Canadian historian Ken McGoogan has written several in-depth works on people who made their mark on the Arctic, but here he takes the long view, showing how explorers (most of them British) fared in the north from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
The result of decades of research, McGoogan examines who succeeded, who failed, and why. His persistent finding is that those Europeans and Brits who learned from the Inuit residents of the Arctic and followed their examples generally thrived, while those who dismissed Native knowledge often met extreme hardship or death. In the mind of Sir John Franklin, who left England with two ships in 1845, the Native people were savages and only British technology and know-how could conquer the far north. Instead, he and his 128 crewmen all vanished, leading to searches that found only a handful of corpses and, until they were located in this decade, no sign of their ships. As McGoogan shows, even among the many expeditions that went searching for the men, the shortest path to tragedy was found by ignoring the locals.
By Stephen R. Bown; Da Capo Press, 2017; 352 pages; $28
This account of Vitus Bering’s discovery of Alaska is the first exhaustive book on the story to be written for general audiences. Stephen R. Bown goes deep, showing how Bering’s explorations were part of the consolidation and expansion of the Russian Empire that commenced under Peter the Great.
Finding Alaska was an enormous undertaking, one that required two attempts by Bering. The first expedition left St. Petersburg in 1725 and traveled across Asia to Kamchatka. There ships were built and the men sailed off seeking to find whether or not Russia was connected to North America. It was not, of course, but they failed to find the New World and returned to the Russian capital in 1730. Three years later Bering set out again, this time with thousands of men in what must have been the most surreal odyssey of the Age of Exploration. Not until 1741 would two ships sail for North America from the Siberian coast. Alaska was spotted, but Bering died on the return trip, as did many others. One ship was wrecked, and Bown tells the story of the long winter that followed, when the belligerent and deeply disliked naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller emerged as the hero who kept the survivors alive.
By Henry Fountain; Random House, 2017; 298 pages; $28
This story of the 9.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Alaska in 1964 has taken on new resonance with the recent tremor that shook the same region. Drawing from both the historical record and interviews with survivors, Henry Fountain offers a compelling account of the quake and its consequent tsunami, which killed 139 people, some as far away as California. The stories of what befell Valdez and the Alutiiq village of Chenega are especially horrifying (afterward Valdez was moved, Chenega was abandoned).
Then Fountain follows the work of mineral geologist George Plafker, who had previously spent considerable time in Alaska and was sent north by the USGS to survey the damage. What he found confirmed the then somewhat heretical theory of plate tectonics that now informs our entire understanding of the Earth’s crust. Alaska’s disaster was science’s gain.
Text by Kirk Johnson; art by Ray Troll; Fulcrum Publishing, 2018; 292 pages; $35.95
Some history predates the arrival of humans. In this book, author and artist go on a road trip looking for fossils on North America’s western coastline, from California to the Arctic. Paleobotanist Kirk Johnson’s lively prose tells the story of what prehistoric life forms lie beneath out feet, buried by millions of years of land and rock movement. Meanwhile the inimitable artwork of Ketchikan’s Ray Troll fills the pages with endless details that are both scientifically accurate and bursting with humor. This is geek lit at its best.