Book review: New memoir rich with anecdotes remembers Bethel in the 1950s

“In the Winter of the Orange Snow”

By Diane Carpenter; Cirque Press, 2023; 270 pages; $20.

Older Alaskans will remember Diane Carpenter, who was — as a longtime resident of Bethel, educator, public servant and social activist — a significant shaper of Alaska beginning in its late-territorial days. In her new memoir, Carpenter, now 90 years old and living in Mexico, presents her early Alaska years with a deep appreciation for the communities and cultures of which she became a part.

It was quite a distance from Louisville, Kentucky, where Carpenter was a music student, to 10 years later, living on a Stony River homestead with a traveling dentist-husband and four children, hunting and fishing, flying a plane, running a trading post, operating a light plant, managing a radio system and weather station, and serving as a medical aide for families along the Kuskokwim River.

When Carpenter’s husband, Bob, returned from service in Korea, the couple had joined the U.S. Public Health Service and asked to be sent to Alaska for a two-year assignment. The first year, in Ketchikan, was filled with adventures, including Carpenter being arrested for illegal fishing when the seiner she was cooking on started fishing well before an opening. While they loved their time in Ketchikan, the place seemed a bit tame to Diane and Bob, and they asked to be sent to a more “Alaskan” community for their second year.

Bethel, as Carpenter tells it, was a Wild West kind of place when they arrived in 1956. Bethel was also “accepting, diverse, creative, and non-judgmental,” and, aside from being useful — most people in the region had never seen a dentist — Diane and Bob felt enriched by those who befriended them and by their interactions with the Yup’ik and Athabascan villagers they served. Their home in Bethel became a central gathering place for locals and visitors. When their commitment to the Public Health Service ended, they stayed. And stayed. Except for the 10 years they homesteaded in Stony River — where they essentially established the community — Bethel was their home.

“In the Winter of the Orange Snow” (its title taken from the occasional growth of orange algae on snow and meant as a metaphor) collects Carpenter’s remembrances of her early years in Bethel. The 31 chapters, each built around a topic, are rich in anecdotal stories about specific events, many of them humorous. Many names and references will be familiar to older Alaskans. Carpenter is a superb storyteller, and reading her work is much like it must be to listen to her reminisce.


The stories, thus, are mostly personal and mostly of a positive nature. They range from “On the River in a New Boat” to “First Bethel Winter,” “A New Apartment, a New Life,” “The Roadhouse and the Tundra Shack,” “I Start Teaching and Get an Education,” “A New Airport, A Famous Car,” “Out of Gas,” and “My Moose Died Laughing.” The Bethel community Carpenter knew was one with a great deal of partying and recreational drinking, and she includes stories of bootleggers and some alcohol-induced violence. She also makes clear that the villages in the region, each one distinct, experienced the effects of cultural upheavals. On the whole, though, she’s chosen to honor the strengths and kindnesses of people she knew and to celebrate the good times.

A certain amount of historical information is included, including details of the three systems of school organization that took place during Carpenter’s teaching days, and the way law was handled in the territory versus in the new state.

One chapter, “Lives Lost, Lives Saved,” tells the story of tuberculosis in the region. (“From 1949 to 1951, 92 percent of the children aged seven to eight were tuberculin-positive.”) In the early 1950s, the “unsung hero of modern medicine” Dr. Beryl Michaelson initiated in Bethel a tuberculosis drug and prevention program that people could follow at home — as opposed to being sent to distant sanatoriums, the usual treatment at the time. Although her program worked impressively well and was later adopted globally, Michaelson was fired “because she had embarrassed the health establishment” by working independently of the system. This was all before Carpenter’s own time in Bethel, but she heard the story from nurses who had worked with Michaelson.

Another chapter, “Moravian Missionaries in Bethel,” describes the 1885 arrival of Moravian missionaries to the region. “They set up their mission on the north side of the river against local advice as it was a cut bank. They called the settlement Bethel. Gradually, the people of Mamterilleq moved across the river to the new site.” Carpenter discusses the influence and legacy of the Moravians on the locals, recognizing both the positives and the negatives.

“In the Winter of the Orange Snow” also includes dozens of black and white photos, not just from Carpenter’s own collection but brought together from other family archives, institutional archives and the well-known photographer James Barker.

Diane Carpenter clearly and dearly loved Alaska and Bethel in particular. After giving so much of her life to helping others and promoting social causes, she has now added some key pieces of her personal history to her legacy.

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."