Books

Our reviewers’ favorite books of the North from 2021

Anchorage Daily News book reviewers Nancy Lord and David James present, in no particular order, the 2021 works — including fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels — that they found most memorable and meaningful.

David James’ choices

This isn’t a ranked list and certainly shouldn’t be considered a “best of 2021.” I only read a fraction of what was published, and because books have differing objectives it’s often unfair to rank them against each other. A graphic novel for grade schoolers can hardly be compared to an exhaustively researched work of history, and subarctic noir is a world away from bear watching. So these are simply the books that have stayed with me.

As usual, I got buried in more books than I can review this year and had to decline a lot of requests. My apologies to those authors I had to turn down. There simply isn’t enough time and space to cover everything.

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

“Finding True North” lives up to its title. Fairbanks resident Molly Rettig conducted exhaustive oral history interviews with four longtime residents of Alaska’s Interior, framing their stories against the historic, social and economic trajectory of the state over the 20th century and into the new millennium. Rettig initially came to Alaska as a reporter and quickly realized the state is tied to a resource-based economy. She befriended and tells the stories of a gold miner, a bush pilot, an archaeologist who came north during the pipeline construction and a Native elder who has spent her life living largely off the land.

In an era of zero-sum politics, when people are siloing into likeminded circles of friends and social media groupings, Rettig, whose own values track toward environmentalism, grew close to each of the four and found common ground with them in a shared love for the land that transcends differences over how that land should be lived upon. This is an exceptionally human book by an author who sees the humanity in others. We need more such writing.

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike, by Brian Castner, Doubleday, 274 pages, 2021, $28.95

A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age, by Paul Starobin, PublicAffairs, 314 pages, 2020, $28

A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali, America’s Wildest Peak, by Patrick Dean, Pegasus Books, 336 pages, 2021, $27.95

It was a banner year for history books, and three that explore Alaska’s early territorial days all shine.

The Klondike gold rush has been so exhaustively written about that it isn’t easy to make it new again, but that’s what Brian Castner accomplishes with “Stampede.” Rather than a chronological telling of the event that forever transformed the North, Castner opts to zigzag through time, exploring the lives of several key players. The book follows both the famous and relatively obscure as they came north and, for the most part, failed to realize their dreams of gold but lived notable lives regardless.

Every Alaskan has heard of Soapy Smith, who briefly controlled Skagway, but only a few can identify Alexander McKenzie, who enjoyed even greater success taking over Nome for a short time. An inveterate con artist with political connections all the way to the White House, he arrived in the boomtown in 1900 and used legal chicanery to swindle prospectors out of their claims. His rise and fall are chronicled in Paul Starobin’s “A Most Wicked Conspiracy,” where he emerges as the last great frontier scammer in America’s last frontier town.

Finally, in “A Window to Heaven,” Patrick Dean provides a wonderful biography of Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who was a co-leader of the first successful ascent of Denali, but whose influence on early Alaska extends far beyond that lofty accomplishment. Stuck left a complicated legacy and has been subject to severe criticism in recent decades, when Western missionaries have been brutally judged for their roles in colonial expansion, and often with justification. Castner shows the ways Stuck varied from the norm of his time. He sought to convert Alaska Natives to his faith, but beyond that he was a tireless advocate for their rights against uncaring government and indifferent settlers who felt Alaska Natives were in the way. He was a flawed man, but in the political climate of 1910, he was far ahead of his time.

The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, by Michael Fitz, The Countryman Press, 288 pages, 2021, $18.95

In 1912, a year before Stuck and his party ascended Denali, Mount Katmai erupted, helping forge the landscape of what today is known as Katmai National Park. This is where tourists flock every summer to see brown bears up close as they swarm into Brooks Falls to feast on salmon. Michael Fitz has been a park ranger there for many years, and in “The Bears of Brooks Falls” he blends human and natural history with his own observations, taking readers through the lives of bears as well as the fish they eat. Natural and human history combine in this beautifully written and deeply informative book that will easily turn its readers into bear advocates.

Kodi, by Jared Cullum, Top Shelf Productions, 176 pages, 2020, $14.99

Chickaloonies, by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver, 80% Studios, 2021, 96 pages, $25

A bear named Kodi is the star of a book of the same name, one of two exceptional graphic novels for kids in upper grade school that came my way this year. Written and illustrated by Jared Cullum, it follows the adventures of a misfit kid in the Southeast Panhandle who finds her best friend in Kodi, then unexpectedly has to leave him behind and return to Seattle. Kodi soon follows, and the mayhem and fun ensue. Cullum’s artwork is beautiful, whether he’s depicting deep woods in the Tongass or rainy streets in Seattle, and the story is perfect for all ages.

“Chickaloonies” by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver takes place in Chickaloon, although not the town Alaskans know. The sun has been gobbled by a fish, the glo-berries that provide light in its stead have been picked clean by an unknown intruder, and two young boys are tasked with restoring light. This fusion of Alaska Native legends with manga art is funny, fun and written with purpose. The power of storytelling lies at its heart.

How Quickly She Disappears, by Raymond Fleischmann, Berkeley, 320 pages, 2020, $26

Wild Rivers, Wild Rose, by Sarah Birdsall, University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series, 360 pages, 2020, $18.95

Finally, I began the year with a double shot of subarctic noir. In “How Quickly She Disappears,” Raymond Fleischmann brings a schoolteacher with a tragic past and a precocious daughter into contact with a German bush pilot in 1941, as America slides toward war. Murder, manipulation, mystery and madness result as the tale moves from Tanacross to Fairbanks. I couldn’t put this one down.

Nor could I stop turning the pages of “Wild Rivers, Wild Rose” by Sarah Birdsall, another literary thriller, which also opens in 1941 when the town of Susitna Station is rocked by an unsolved triple homicide. Finding the perpetrator becomes the obsession of a young woman visiting her aunt two decades later. This book is soaked in Alaska history, from the flu pandemic to the Good Friday earthquake, and explores what happens to people who try to flee their demons.

Nancy Lord’s selections

Of the 25 Alaska- and northern-related books I reviewed on these pages in 2021, I’ve selected to revisit and recommend the half-dozen that strike me as most memorable and meaningful. Five are nonfiction, with an emphasis on personal stories, and the sixth is poetry also based on the writer’s life experiences. They’re in no particular order here.

The Loneliest Polar Bear: A True Story of Survival and Peril on the Edge of a Warming World, by Kale Williams, Crown, 274 pages, 2021, $28

Kale Williams began his polar bear journey in 2016 when a polar bear cub named Nora arrived at the Portland, Oregon, zoo and became an instant celebrity. He traced Nora’s story back to a wild grandmother bear in Alaska and then through the young bear’s own triumphs and perils as a zoo bear. While the title “The Loneliest Polar Bear” suggests a story of one solitary bear, the book expands outward into a host of related science and political topics including the effects of climate change on the northern environment and the role of zoos in conservation and education.

In researching his story, Williams not only spent plenty of time in zoos and with zoo people but traveled three times to Wales, where he interviewed Gene Rex Agnaboogok, the hunter who, in 1988, rescued a bear cub that later became Nora’s father. Agnaboogok and other elders shared with him their knowledge of polar bears, sea ice and the changing Arctic. Williams presents a history of the region, including its precontact way of life, early exploration by Captain Cook and other westerners, and the devastation by the flu epidemic of 1918-19, which killed half the population.

Williams also describes the work of polar bear researchers, including that of Alaska wildlife biologist Karyn Rode. One chapter describes darting and collaring Chukchi Sea polar bears, the science of determining polar bear populations and the health of individuals, and the increasing problem of conducting research on thin and broken ice.

Inside Passage, by Keema Waterfield, Green Writers Press, 229 pages, 2021, $19.95

Keema Waterfield was born during a party in an Anchorage trailer in 1980, child of a 20-year-old free-spirited artist-musician mother and an older pot-dealing father. Her young life was an unstable one that involved moving among Anchorage, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Douglas and Fairbanks as well as locations in Washington, Oregon and California, and living with a series of stepfathers, boyfriends of her mother, and relatives.

Well-balanced between heartbreaking experiences of the child and thoughtful reflections of the adult narrator, “Inside Passage” shows us the power of a mother’s love, however complicated by circumstances, when it pairs up with a child’s fierce determination and the good hearts of others. Alaska locations and experiences like riding the state ferry will be familiar to Alaska readers.

By strength of will and with the support of friends and their families, Waterfield not only survived her childhood but went on to build the kind of life that can give us this remarkably self-aware and forgiving book, so much richer for its understanding and beauty than many trauma memoirs.

Cabin 135: A Memoir of Alaska, by Katie Eberhart, University of Alaska Press, 334 pages, 2020, $19.95

In 1983 Katie Eberhart and her husband moved into a house near Palmer that had been built 48 years earlier for a farming family in the Matanuska Colony. Eberhart’s unusual memoir, a collage of short meditations about the history and renovations of that house, gardens and landscapes, and the passage of time, captures her curiosity about the world and her attentions to life’s connections. Instead of following a chronology, “Cabin 135″ is shaped by juxtaposition, leaping in a never-dull way among places, times and imaginings.

Those places and times extend back to her childhood, into an imagined future, and on travels to Denali Park, the Arctic coast, Iceland, Switzerland and the experimental Biosphere-2 in Arizona. The connective tissue is Eberhart’s curiosity about the natural world and the forces that shape human lives. As she puts it, “the stories I tell here root around in nature.”

That is the pleasure of this lovely memoir — the way in which it carries readers into a very interesting, inquiring mind and shows how, in the places that begin as home, our explorations can lead us outward into the wide world of wonderment and connectiveness.

A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou, by Seth Kantner, Mountaineers Books, 306 pages, 2021, $28.95

Seth Kantner made his impressive literary debut with the novel “Ordinary Wolves” in 2004. Now, the book he has been writing for many years — we might reasonably say all his life — brings together the facts of his unusual life, his acute observations of the natural world, and his concerns for the north country he so treasures. Beautifully written and deeply introspective, “A Thousand Trails Home” may be the book Kantner has been aiming his powers at all along, a masterwork only he could deliver.

Although there is a great deal about caribou in Kantner’s book, do not think that this is a book about caribou. The lives of caribou, as they migrate through the seasons, are the framework on which the book is built, a framework that holds together the timbers of memoir, natural history, history, culture, science and philosophy. Caribou and their “trails home” serve as an overarching metaphor for serious thought about the author’s own movements through the world and, by extension, those of us all.

“A Thousand Trails Home” is organized into four parts corresponding to the four seasons and broken into 20 chapters that include dozens of superb photos. As he takes readers through a northern year, Kantner shows what it is to love and respect the land and its gifts, and to question how our actions will affect the future.

The Book of Timothy: The Devil, My Brother, and Me, by Joan Nockels Wilson, Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 320 pages, 2021, $18.95

In “The Book of Timothy” Anchorage resident Joan Nockels Wilson details her decade-long fight to seek justice for her brother and other boys who’d been abused in Chicago by a priest she names as Father John Baptist Ormechea. The story culminates in a visit to Rome to confront the priest, who had eventually been transferred to the Vatican to protect him and children he might continue to abuse.

The author, trained as a prosecutor, takes her research, analytical and legal skills as well as her “big sister” protectiveness to the entire endeavor. She is unrelenting in her quests for understanding and vengeance and in her documentation of what she discovers. A Catholic from birth, raised in a churchgoing family and parochial schools, she explains church doctrines, the pull of faith and her own wavering beliefs. Readers will come away with greater understandings of the role of faith in individual life, the way entire families are affected by trust betrayals, the traumatic effects of reopening life events that some would prefer to forget, and the psychology of abusers — the narcissism that prevents empathy for others and the practice of “grooming” victims and their families.

In the end, this is a book about love and family devotion. Like the family of firefighters from which she and her brother came, Wilson responded to the emergency call. “Run always towards the flames and then, of course, always return home.”

Everything Never Comes Your Way, by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 85 pages, 2021, $16.95

In her third book of poetry, Fairbanksan Nicole Stellon O’Donnell firmly establishes herself as both a remarkable artist and a commentator on the role of poet. While her first book, the well-researched “Steam Laundry,” told the story of a gold miner’s wife during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes, and her second, “You Are No Longer in Trouble,” consisted of prose poems related to her experiences as student and teacher, “Everything Never Comes Your Way” travels a wider path through subject matter and style.

Among the work here are five prose pieces, each called “Explication,” which confront the legacy of the late poet John Haines. As a new poet in Alaska, Stellon O’Donnell at first felt his “cloudlike” fame as an overshadowing of her own responses to the place they both called home. By the fifth poem, she gives voice to her very different concept of nature, as a woman not in wild solitude but as one who has given birth and lives in community. A final Haines-related poem makes masterful use of a poetic form known as a Golden Shovel to respond to Haines’s well-known “Poem of the Forgotten” with “A Song for Forgetting.”

Other poems, about picking berries, watching a Denali Park wolf that will soon be killed, and the song of a winter’s stove-tick, all express, often with good humor, Stellon O’Donnell’s non-mythic, realist sense of the northern life she knows. She is an original, a poet for our times as well as our place.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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