Books

New book describes remarkable lives in the North — and the resources they relied on

Finding True North: Firsthand Stories of the Booms that Built Alaska

By Molly Rettig, University of Alaska Press/Snowy Owl Books, 280 pages, 2021. $21.95

Alaska is not a wilderness, my neighbor, a lifelong Alaskan, once told me. It’s a homeland. And to live in a homeland, one might add, is to require its resources for survival. This is where Molly Rettig finds her story.

Rettig, a former reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, came to Alaska in 2010 expecting to have an adventure for a year or two and go home with stories to tell for the rest of her life. And like many of us who wandered north with similar expectations, she never turned around.

Rettig’s understanding of Alaska prior to her arrival was beholden to the myths of the Last Frontier and a life close to nature that many Americans still cling to and many Alaskans love to perpetuate from the comfort of their living rooms. What she encountered was a state fixated on the price of a barrel of oil. While the America she left behind was humming along with a post-industrial, high-tech economy driven by those vaunted creators, Alaskans were bound by the amount of oil that could be extracted from beneath its surface, and the value assigned to it by global markets. Which meant things could be very good for Alaskans, or very bad.

Rettig left journalism within a couple of years, taking a job with the Cold Climate Research Housing Center, but she didn’t quit interviewing people and she didn’t quit writing. She focused her interviews on elder Alaskans with deep roots in the state, and came to recognize how resources drive history and vice versa, and how these entwined forces carve human experiences, including her own. The result is her first book, “Finding True North,” which is unlike any Alaska book I have previously encountered.

Her story begins at her neighbor’s home in Ester, the quirky community a few miles from Fairbanks steeped in its own gold mining history. Clutch Lounsbury is a third-generation prospector who has spent his life on the land, searching for the metal that humanity treasures. He inherited his property from his parents, and it came complete with its own private mine shaft, which extends from his living room.

For Rettig, Lounsbury presented a conundrum. She immediately liked him, but had carried to Alaska strong environmental ethics acquired in her previous, urbanized life. Here was a man who knew and loved the land they walked on better than she ever could, even as he burrowed into it, forever altering its appearance. Yet this is how he had made his way through his long life in Alaska. She was a newcomer. What right did she have to critique him? Especially when his life was so fascinating.

This is the ground from which this book takes root. Rettig has broken it into four sections, each detailing the life of Alaskans well past the age of Social Security, each of whom spent that life on the land, and each of whom would have been unable to do so without resources. For the first three, those resources are tied to the world economy. For the fourth, it was resources that allowed her to subsist largely outside that economy.

Rettig digs into her subjects’ personal histories, their families’ histories, Alaska’s history, and even deep time. Along with Lounsbury, she devotes a section each to Wright’s Air Service founder Al Wright, her husband’s parents Mike and Patty Kunz, and Julie Mahler, a Gwich’in elder who finds Arctic Village a bit crowded. Through these people’s stories she explores resource booms in Alaska, and the busts that invariably follow. And through her lengthy visits with them, she traces her own first decade in Alaska, showing how dependent we all are on resources, and being forced to confront the inapplicability of some of her own long-held opinions when they collided with the reality of trying to make a living in Alaska.

Along the way, there are great stories. Lounsbury’s, of course, revolve around gold mining, and his family’s stories date back to the Gold Rush days. His grandparents came to Alaska, struggled to find their fortune and, unsuccessful, left to become Iowa farmers. Their son, Lounsbury’s father, returned to the land of his birth when the Depression robbed the him of any immediate future. Now Lounsbury continues the legacy.

Wright founded one of Alaska’s most successful Bush carriers. Rettig tells the story of how, as a young child in Minto in 1931, Wright watched planes come down from the sky and bring the modern world directly into a remote village. She captures the excitement of that childhood moment, but doesn’t give exhaustive details of how Wright built the airline. She’s more interested in how airplanes changed Alaska, She does, however, tell us how, in an era when regulations were poorly enforced, Wright simply taught himself to fly. She also provides a couple of tales of his mishaps that will leave readers wondering why he didn’t quit and go to work in a grocery store.

Rettig’s father-in-law is a prominent archaeologist who made a key discovery about the earliest human inhabitants of Alaska, one that altered understanding of how the Americas were populated. But he couldn’t have done this had he not been hired to survey the trans-Alaska pipeline route. Oil made his life possible, and hers as well. And at their career peaks, both found their livelihoods threatened by steep price reductions.

Finally she arrives at the Arctic home of Julie Mahler, who has lived almost entirely off the land, on resources capable of mostly sustaining her but which are threatened by proposed oil development, which could sustain many other Alaskans.

These stories, weaving through time, offer more questions than answers. But fortunately Rettig is not quick to reach conclusions. Neither is life itself, if one pays attention. And that’s what she does. This is a book about Alaska as a homeland, with its many quandaries. And about how its author, by listening to those who have long lived here, found her own home.

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