Skip to main Content
Books

22 Alaska books our reviewers recommend for when you’re hunkered down

Editor’s note: We’re all spending more time at home these days -- a lot more time. To help keep us all diverted, ADN book reviewers David James and Nancy Lord have created a reading list of Alaska titles from all eras.

David James’ picks

A quarantine reading list isn’t something I ever pictured myself composing, but here we are. Normally I advocate buying from independent booksellers if possible, but with conditions what they are, staying at home is wise. Therefore I’ve only selected books available in electronic editions.

If you’re not already feeling dystopian enough, read “The Raven’s Gift” to get you over the line. This 2011 debut novel by Don Rearden follows a white school teacher and a blind Yupik woman on a mad dash through a wintertime Southwestern Alaska ravaged by a virulent plague that has swept the planet, wreaking havoc on civilization and leaving Alaska untethered from the outside world. Nearly everyone is dead, while most survivors subsist by looting and killing. Rearden, a lifelong Alaskan, was inspired by the 1918 flu epidemic that decimated many of Alaska’s villages. He pondered what would happen if this took place again. So far, our present circumstances haven’t come close to his vision, but the book is timely nonetheless.

Climbing season has been canceled by the virus, but you can still ascend the heights via Bill Sherwonit’s classic history “To the Top of Denali.” Originally published in 1990, and updated a couple of times since, the book recounts the most famous climbs and worst tragedies on North America’s highest peak, and introduces readers to the many colorful individuals who have made their mark on it.

While Sherwonit recounts his own climb as well, those seeking a closer look at the motivations and experiences of a dedicated climber should also visit Jonathan Waterman’s 1993 alpine memoir In the Shadow of Denali,” where they’ll learn of both the thrills and heartbreaks of a life spent at high altitudes from one of the mountain’s living legends.

Like climbers, pilots seek altitude, and sometimes fall. Colleen Mondor has spent her life in aviation, and in 2012’s “The Map of My Dead Pilots” she tells of her years working for a small air transport operation based in Fairbanks. Life in the skies is sometimes thrilling, frequently boring, and occasionally terrifying. Mondor spins stories with wonderful descriptive skills and a sense of humor that doesn’t shy away from the gallows.

Alexis Bunten blends insight and wit in her 2015 book, “So, How Long Have You Been Native?” which grew out of her Ph.D project exploring Native Alaskan cultural tourism. It’s a memoir of her two summers working for Tribal Tours in Sitka, guiding cruise ship passengers on short trips that expose them to Tlingit culture. Bunten ponders ways that cultural divides can (hopefully) be bridged, examines how cultural tourism commoditizes identity, discovers much about herself, and looks at the economic importance of tourism and its impact on small communities. And yes, one of her coworkers honestly was asked, “So, How Long Have You Been Native?”

Unalakleet is the setting for “Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same.” This 2009 debut novel by Mattox Roesch tells the story of Cesar, a Los Angeles teenager who runs into trouble and is brought north by his Alaska Native mother. There he falls in with the village’s favorite goofball, Go-boy, a natural born philosopher. While the story begins as a culture clash between an urban gang-banger and rural Alaska, it slowly shifts into a sensitively written meditation on mental illness, with memorable characters and unexpected plot twists.

Robert Hale was certainly mentally ill, and also unquestionably evil. He grew up in the hippie era, converted to an apocalyptic form of Christianity, got married and changed his name to Papa Pilgrim. In 2002 he brought his wife and 15 children to McCarthy Alaska, and before long, all hell broke loose. “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” is Tom Kizzia’s 2013 account of how Papa Pilgrim got to Alaska and what ensued when a man who wanted to be left alone couldn’t keep himself out of trouble, hastening his downfall.

Mary Kudenov was born and raised poor in Alaska. As an adult she landed in a low rent apartment in Anchorage’s Mountain View district, surrounded by poverty, violence and dysfunction. She also found her way into the University of Alaska, Anchorage’s creative writing MFA program (now facing the budget ax) and rescued herself from conditions few people escape. Threadbareis her 2017 memoir of life on the skids. It documents an Alaska many people would prefer to ignore. All the more reason to read it.

The first Europeans to come to Alaska didn’t have it easy either. A massive crew headed by Vitus Bering left St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1733, crossed the entirety of Asia, built ships when they reached the Pacific, and sailed off to sea to find the northwestern shore of North America. Many of them died along the way, including Bering. Stephen Bown’s 2017 history “Island of the Blue Foxes” tells the epic story of how Alaska came to the world’s attention.

Frederick James Currier set off for Alaska in 1894 and spent nearly a decade chasing gold and running about the land. He wrote a memoir which didn’t see publication until 2018 as “An Alaskan Adventure.” Though not a writer by trade, he was certainly a writer by nature, and this book is one of the finest pioneer era accounts to be found. Currier was here before, during, and after the Gold Rush, and bore witness to some pivotal history. But mostly he tells of day-to-day life with vivid detail and a remarkable economy of language.

Nine decades later, Kim Heacox came north as well, initially to work at Denali National Park, a place that has formed who he is. A fierce defender of wildlands in general and Denali in particular, he tells of his encounters with Denali in “Rhythm of the Wild,” his 2015 homage to the value of preserving wild places. What he says of Denali applies to much of Alaska. “It teaches and inspires; it slows me down.”

As the world quiets down for an indefinite time, we have an opportunity to heed those words.

Nancy Lord’s comfort reads

In this time of isolation and uncertainty, when we reach for our comfort foods, we might also hunker down with books that can help ease our anxieties. I list here a few personal favorites by Alaskans, living or past, or strongly related to Alaska. Most can be downloaded immediately as Ebooks. As of this writing, many Alaska bookstores are still open and will be happy to deliver to you at the door or curbside. Help them stay in business by buying locally when you can!

Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival,” by Velma Wallis. Epicenter Press, 1993 and Harper Perennial Anniversary Edition 2013.

What could be more inspiring than the story of two women left behind by their band because they were old and winter food was scarce, who then work together not only to survive but to eventually help save those who abandoned them? This book, now a classic, is a retelling of a Gwich’in traditional story Wallis heard from her mother and it is loved as a lesson for all about respecting elders and sticking together in times of hardship.

Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska,” by Hank Lentfer. Mountaineers Books, 2011.

Lentfer, a former wildlife biologist and a conservationist, composed this memoir around his interests in the sandhill cranes he watched from his Gustavus home and his questions about fatherhood, family and the fate of our world. His lyrical writing is absolutely gorgeous, and the life and inquiry out of which he writes should leave a warm spot in any reader’s heart.

To the Bright Edge of the World,” by Eowyn Ivey. Little, Brown, and Company, 2016.

Ivey is better known as the author of the Pulitzer finalist “The Snow Child,” but her second novel is as imaginatively written and considerably more complex. Based on the historical exploration of the Copper River, it tells dual stories of the expedition leader and his pregnant wife, left behind and questing for her own life’s purpose.

“Moments Rightly Placed: An Aleutian Memoir,” by Ray Hudson. Epicenter Press, 1998.

Hudson arrived as a schoolteacher in Unalaska in 1964 and embraced what he found there. This memoir tracks his love of the place and its people as he learned the art of weaving grass baskets from two tradition bearers. It will take readers into quiet moments of contemplation carefully woven into his larger story. It might also serve as a sort of manual for how to learn a place, its history, and its values.

Becoming Earth,” by Eva Saulitis. Boreal Books, 2016.

This, Saulitis’s last book before her untimely death from cancer in 2016, is both a chronicle of her last days of living and a meditation on mortality, the preciousness of every moment any of us have on Earth, and the beauty and mysteries of the natural world.

It might be read alongside her equally eloquent last book of poetry, “Prayer in Wind” (Boreal Books, 2015), a sequence of prayer-poems. From number 4, “There’s an impossible way/peach elides into blue, then/deepens, healing into daylight.”

On the Edge of Nowhere,” by Jim Huntington as told to Lawrence Elliott. Epicenter Press, 2018 (first published in 1966) and “Shadows on the Koyukuk” by Sidney Huntington as told to Jim Rearden. Alaska Northwest Books, 2014 (first published in 1993.)

The Huntington brothers grew up on the Koyukuk River early in the 20th century, sons of an Athabaskan mother and a white goldminer-trader father. Their two memoirs can be read together, as they take different approaches to telling the stories of their lives and adventures, so richly and yet humbly lived. Their mother once walked a thousand miles home from Nome, in winter, after the trial of a man who murdered her first husband. Then, when the boys were five and three years old and their father was away, their mother died suddenly and the boys cared for their baby sister until adults showed up two weeks later. Talk about strength and resilience!

The Island Within,” by Richard Nelson. North Point Press, 1989 and Vintage Books, 1991.

Winner of the 1991 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding natural history writing, Nelson’s book tracks a year of visits to an unnamed island near his Sitka home. As an anthropologist who had lived among the Koyukon people, Nelson learned from his hosts and elders to observe and participate in the natural world. Watching the sea relax after the wildness of a storm, following bear tracks and reading in them a limp, touching a living deer—these all are part of the education he allows himself, intent on understanding how he fits with the island and its gifts.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name,” by Heather Lende. Algonquin Books, 2006.

Essayist and obituary writer Lende must be one of the nicest, most compassionate people ever, and her three books (with a fourth coming in June) brim over with kindness and appreciation for the lives of small-town Alaskans. This first one encourages readers to embrace each day, value friends and neighbors, and find the beauty in all things familiar and unexpected.

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape,” by Barry Lopez. Vintage Books, 2014 (first publication 1986).

Readers who want to get lost in a “big book” will find plenty to value in Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams,” with its rich descriptions of the northern world and its thoughtfulness about the relationship of humans to their environment. Winner of the National Book Award, this is considered a classic of natural history, anthropology, and travel writing.

The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness,” by John Haines. Graywolf Press, 1989 and 2000.

This memoir in essays by Haines, a former Alaska poet laureate and major American poet, presents what was largely a solitary life with lyrical precision and gratitude towards the land he came to know so well. Barry Lopez wrote that reading this is “to enter a clearing in the woods [and] to feel calmed.” If you can find a copy of Haines’s out-of-print first poetry book, “Winter News,” you’ll settle down as if into dream.

Comments
Sponsored