Anchorage Daily News book reviewers Nancy Lord and David James present, in no particular order, the 2023 works that they found most memorable and meaningful. Their lists include novels, memoirs, mysteries and histories as well as tales about boats, sled dogs and polar explorations.
Nancy Lord’s favorites
2023 was, without a doubt, a very good year for books related to Alaska and the north, and choosing favorites from among them is a humbling assignment. Of the 40 that I reviewed this year in this column, I’ve narrowed my list to seven works of prose that seem to me most memorable and potentially most engaging for readers. I don’t like to neglect this year’s exceptional poetry, but there’s only so much space!
“Lookout” by Christine Byl; A Strange Object/Deep Vellum, 2023; 278 pages; $25.95.
Alaskan Christine Byl, author of the well-loved 2013 “Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods,” returned with her first novel, a beautifully written and deeply compassionate story of a rural family in northwest Montana.
Beginning in 1985, the story follows the Kinzler family, the neighboring family of close friends, and others through intertwined lives of love and loss for the following 24 years. Part of the book’s genius is the variety of voices that share in the storytelling — a collage of viewpoints that seamlessly build their lived-in world. Chapters switch among characters, sometimes in first-person voices, more often in third-person but reaching easily into each character’s thoughts and reactions.
There’s a great deal of love in this book — often complicated, always genuinely depicted, never with a hint of sentimentality. Readers will come away with full and aching hearts, the best thing that can be said about any novel.
“On Heaven’s Hill” by Kim Heacox; West Margin Press, 2023; 304 pages; $28.99.
Kim Heacox, of Gustavus, is one of Alaska’s best-known writers, author of the memoir “The Only Kayak” and the novel “Jimmy Bluefeather.” In his new novel, he folds his environmental concerns and convictions into a captivating story about belief, community, and activism.
The book is structured around three intersecting narratives — alternating chapters from the viewpoints of a pre-teen girl with a father wounded in Afghanistan, a former trapper caring for his ill son, and, interestingly, a young wolf. The location is Strawberry Flats, a small coastal community in Southeast Alaska. The conflict, aside from the personal challenges each character faces, centers on a large-scale development in a remote area where a unique species of salmon-eating wolves lives. References to real-life threats from logging, predator control, climate change, economic development that overrules environment protection, poor education and scientific denial, and political maneuvering — even corruption — abound. And yet, Heacox delivers something more, a portrait of a world filled with joy, music, and love.
“I’m Here: Alaskan Stories” by David Nikki Crouse; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2023; 192 pages; $16.95.
David Nikki Crouse, formerly of Fairbanks, currently directs the creative writing program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Crouse has authored two previous short fiction collections and “Trouble Will Save You: Three Novellas,” also published this year.
The 12 stories in “I’m Here” feature a wide variety of characters — outsiders, outcasts, failures in enterprises or relationships, in confused or oppositional states, literally in the woods, in flight. They operate on the margins of society and/or are caught in traumatic situations; there are reasons they live in edge places like the outskirts of Fairbanks or are in some kind of transition between lives or circumstances. They struggle with weather and balky vehicles, and with who they are. They tell stories, they lie, they live in their imaginations. They leave places, partners, and family and return to them.
Although the individual stories tend towards darkness, Crouse’s characters seek and often find not just purpose but joy. Their worlds are vibrantly alive with possibility and the consequences of being human. Readers will be tossed through mysteries and emotions, wrapped in piercing, sensual language, and come away with new appreciations for our shared place and time.
“Hidden Mountains: Survival and Reckoning After a Climb Gone Wrong” by Michael Wejchert; Ecco/HarperCollins, 2023; 239 pages; $28.99.
In June of 2018, two young couples from the East Coast, all very accomplished technical climbers, came to Alaska to climb in a remote and practically unexplored mountain range within Lake Clark National Park. “Hidden Mountains” — the name of that range — tells the story of those four climbers and the dramatic unfolding of their disastrous expedition.
Michael Wejchert, a climber and mountain rescuer himself, goes beyond the particular characters and events to explore today’s climbing culture within its historical context and to consider risk-taking and ethical choices. The result is a masterpiece of adventure writing, solidly grounded in both factual details and empathetic understandings of human motivations.
“Hidden Mountains” will enthrall and educate both experienced climbers and armchair adventurers who’ve never placed a toe on rock or a climbing wall.
“Remedies for Sorrow: An Extraordinary Child, a Secret Kept from Pregnant Women, and a Mother’s Pursuit of the Truth” by Megan Nix; Doubleday, 2023; 336 pages; $28.
When Megan Nix delivered her second child, in 2015, the baby was small and failed her newborn hearing test. Nix and her husband soon learned about a virus known as cytomegalovirus or CMV that Nix had been infected with while pregnant.
Nix set off on a quest to learn everything she could about CMV. She was shocked, as readers should be, at just how common it is, how devastating the congenital form is for affected children and their families, and, especially, that the medical community did not, at the time, advise pregnant women about the virus and what they should do to avoid it.
For all its medical information and alarm call to parents and health professionals, the great strength and beauty of “Remedies for Sorrow” lies with Nix’s superb writing and the context she brings to her story. A graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s MFA program who splits her time between Sitka and Colorado, Nix is a tremendous narrative writer. A reader need have no particular interest in motherhood, babies, disease, or the medical system to fully engage with the story she tells. Her family, religious views, attachments to place, friendships, historic events, and responses to some of the world’s great thinkers and writers fill this book with radical thought and appreciation for life.
“Many Things Under a Rock: The Mysteries of Octopuses” by David Scheel; W.W. Norton, 2023; 307 pages; $28.95.
David Scheel, an octopus researcher and professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, met his first octopus in 1995 in a Cordova aquarium. He soon secured funding for an octopus study and began his education not only in octopuses and southcentral Alaska’s marine environment but in Alaska Native cultures.
The early parts of the book primarily involve Scheel’s first field work in Prince William Sound, capturing and documenting the region’s dominant octopus species, the Giant Pacific Octopus. The reader follows along as Scheel and his research team meet with local residents, there and in Kachemak Bay. He scuba dives and accompanies elders at low tide to learn the traditional way of finding octopuses by feeling into dens with alder sticks. He very quickly discovers how much he has to learn, and he seeks and respects all the traditional knowledge he can find.
Scheel follows with accounts of his octopus research on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and along the coast of Madagascar. Digressions from his personal research carry readers into fascinating stories of sea monsters, octopus biology and behavior, and octopus studies elsewhere. Throughout, the author freely shares his enthusiasm about the complex lives of octopuses and the many mysteries surrounding them.
“What Water Holds” by Tele Aadsen; Empty Bowl Press, 2023; 149 pages; $18.
Tele Aadsen became a “boat kid” when her parents built a boat in their Wasilla backyard and then launched the family as salmon trollers in Sitka in 1985. Although her parents eventually went on to other ways of life, Aadsen made a career out of deckhanding and today continues trolling out of Sitka with her partner.
The author’s debut book of 26 short, lyrical essays examines her life’s work, with insightful reflections about the passions that drive it, the questions that demand attention, and the community that small-boat fishermen share. Individual essays vary from the rescue of a shearwater with a hook embedded in its wing, to sharing salmon heads with a friend, to the fleet’s coordinated actions to get an ill man to safety, to nostalgia for the days of VHF radio chatter and the storytelling culture fostered by it. Yet other essays interrogate the insecurity of a fishing life, the “graying” of the fleet, and the roles of women.
“What Water Holds” holds a great deal of clear-eyed consideration, even wisdom, about the values to be found in a fishing — or any — life.
David A. James’ favorites
Time for the annual look back at the year in writing, and for me as a reviewer, 2023 goes down as the year of the Alaska Native woman novelist, three of whom gave us books worthy of note.
“Sivulliq: Ancestor” by Lily Tuzroyluke; Epicenter Press, 2023; 290 pages; $18.95.
Lily Tuzroyluke’s debut novel “Sivulliq: Ancestor” received wide and deserved acclaim. Set in northwestern Alaska in 1893, it follows an Iñupiaq woman across land and sea on a quest to rescue her daughter, who has been kidnapped and taken as his own by an American whaling captain. Tuzroyluke balanced more themes than can be listed here, chief among them the deadly impacts, via disease, competition for food, and control of their own lands, that Alaska’s original inhabitants suffered when Americans arrived. And with her Indigenous characters’ knowledge of their lands, she reminds us that Alaska was never a wilderness. It’s a homeland. She accomplished this and much more while providing an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
“Eagle Drums” by Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson; Roaring Brook Press, 2023; 256 pages; $18.99.
Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson also went digging into the past with “Eagle Drums” which takes an Iñupiat myth of a boy kidnapped by giant, shapeshifting eagles and turns it into a full length young adult novel. The hero, Piŋa, is taught vital skills by his captors, with the intention of sending him back to bring a dispersed people together. It’s an origin story, a hero’s journey, and a richly detailed novel that places culture over action, giving readers a sense of pre-contact Arctic life.
“The Ravenstone Chronicle” by J. Harper Haines; Epicenter Press, 2022; 248 pages; $16.95.
J. Harper Haines blended mythology with a murder mystery in “The Ravenstone Chronicle.” Largely set in a fictional Athabascan community, it includes shamanism, a talisman, and a lead character from Fairbanks with Native and white heritage who is culturally tied to both city and village. Where Tuzroyluke and Hopson explore the past, Harper Haines looks at the present. Like the other two, she has given us a novel that broadens our understandings of the Alaska we live in, while telling a good story in the process.
“Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest” by Ian Hartman and David Reamer; University of Washington Press, 2022; 304 pages; $24.95.
It was also a good year for history books. Ian Hartman and David Reamer helped expand our sense of who Alaskans are with “Black Lives in Alaska: A History of African Americans in the Far Northwest.” This single-volume study explores the experiences of Black Alaskans, a segment of our population far too often overlooked in both historical and contemporary writings. Beginning with Black whalers in the 1840s, readers learn how Black lives have been lived in Alaska for nearly two centuries, with close analysis of how Black life in Alaska has differed from elsewhere in the country, and how it has too often presented the same hurdles. This is by its nature an introductory work. Hopefully it will spur other historians to dig into specific incidents, eras, and lives discussed here.
“Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway” by Heath Twichell; Epicenter Press, 2022/1992; 408 pages; $29.95
As is well known, Black soldiers built much of the Alaska Highway, and that’s part of the story that the late military historian Heath Twichell told in what remains one of the best accounts of the road’s construction. The recently reissued “Northwest Epic: The Building of the Alaska Highway” recounts how the road came into being, detailing the immense amount of hard physical labor and bureaucratic wrangling it entailed. It’s a lively tale of a massive project, and of the people involved. It’s good to have it back in print.
“The History of Sled Dogs in North America: From the Bering Sea to the Atlantic Ocean” by Helen Hegener; Northern Lights Media, 2023; 420 pages; $69.95.
Before the road there were dogsleds and trails, and Helen Hegener brings us back to that era in “The History of Sled Dogs in North America: From the Bering Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.” Focused primarily on the first half of the 20th century, Hegener combines essays, old newspaper stories, endless photographs, and more, along the way showing how wildly popular mushing was not just in Alaska, but in Canada and northern tier American states as well.
“Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk” by Buddy Levy; St. Martin’s Press, 2022; 400 pages; $29.99.
Moving into the Arctic, Buddy Levy’s “Empire of Ice and Stone: The Disastrous and Heroic Voyage of the Karluk” offers the tale of that ill-fated vessel in what I described in my review as “a classic (of ) polar expedition gone wrong: starvation, frostbite, amputations, conflicts, miserable deaths, a heroic trek for help, narrow escapes, a possible murder (it’s never been proven), and a lot more.”
“Into the Great Emptiness: Peril and Survival on the Greenland Ice Cap” by David Roberts; W. W. Norton & Company, 2022; 368 pages; $30.
Less tragic in his doings until his untimely demise was Gino Watkins, a largely unsung polar explorer whose story is masterfully told by David Roberts in his final book, “Into the Great Emptiness: Peril and Survival on the Greenland Ice Cap.” Watkins was a complicated man who led by consensus rather than authority. Brown solidly argues that this made him one of the great Arctic expedition leaders.
“Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of the Modern Media” by Darrell Hartman; Viking Books, 2023; 400 pages; $30.
Arctic expeditions took additional twists when the (sometimes corrupt) media covered them. This is the story Darrell Hartman brings to life in “Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of the Modern Media.” This is an account of how newspapers covered Peary and Cook’s competing claims of being first to the North Pole, and it lives up to its subtitle.
“Land of Bear and Eagle: A Home in the Kodiak Wilderness” by Tanyo Ravicz; Hancock House, 2022; 280 pages; $24.95.
Tanyo Ravicz’s “Land of Bear and Eagle: A Home in the Kodiak Wilderness” tells of homesteading in the late 1990s. Ravicz blends observations on nature with the struggles of living close to the land, the goodness of neighbors, his inescapable dependence on the outside world, and his thoughts on the nineties, a surreally optimistic decade that he was mostly a bystander to.
“Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft” by Tom Crestodina; Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch Books, 2022; 56 pages; $19.99.
Finally, for kids and adults, Tom Crestodina’s “Working Boats: An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft” combines his richly-detailed yet whimsical art with introductory information on the boats that ply the waters off Alaska. This one should top everyone’s holiday list. It’s a keeper for all ages.