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For a decade, 'Aunt Phil's Trunk' has made Alaska history accessible

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 24, 2016

Aunt Phil's Trunk, Volume Five

Phyllis Downing Carlson and Laurel Downing Bill; Aunt Phil's Trunk LLC; 2016; 448 pages; $19.95

Ten years ago when I first took a job reviewing Alaska books for another publication, I was handed a stack of recent works for consideration. Among them was "Aunt Phil's Trunk Volume One," featuring a photograph of an elderly woman with a kind face on the cover along with the words: "an Alaska historian's collection of treasured tales."

Since it was independently published, and since I'd received another volume of anecdotal Alaska history that was poorly written and lacking in context, I was unsure if I wanted to consider this one. I decided I'd give it 20 pages, and if it didn't grab me, I'd move on.

Twenty pages later, I was a dedicated fanboy and have remained so throughout the ensuing decade and the now four additional volumes of "Aunt Phil's Trunk" that followed.

The genesis for this series — of which the fifth volume was recently published — lies with Phyllis Downing Carlson, who moved with her family to Alaska in 1914 at age 5. A teacher by training, she started collecting stories from her fellow Alaskans in the years after World War II and published them in assorted magazines and newspapers, including the old Anchorage Times. Drawing off newspaper accounts, interviews and other sources, she wrote about Alaska history from the viewpoint of its participants in a lively fashion that lent a personalized sensibility to the names and dates of textbooks.

Downing Carlson died in 1993, and her trove of articles, notes, clippings and all else went to her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, a third-generation Alaskan and fellow history fanatic. It was a fortuitous inheritance. After earning a journalism degree in 2003 from the University of Alaska Anchorage, Downing Bill set to work assembling her aunt's articles into chronological order, filling in some gaps with her own contributions, tidying up a few details and adding photographs to accompany the text.

More than 2,000 pages

The result, which spans five books and more than 2,000 pages, is neither an academic nor a comprehensive history of Alaska, but it is an entertaining and accessible account of the people who have called it home from the opening of the Bering Land Bridge to the 25th anniversary of statehood.

"Aunt Phil's Trunk Volume Five" takes up where the previous one left off, immediately after Alaska was admitted to the Union. The first chapter introduces readers to the new state's first governor, William Egan, with a quick recap of his career. This is followed by chapters exploring challenges facing Alaska as it shifted from a territory that had been almost fully financed by the federal government to a state expected to pull its own weight.

Readers learn about the difficulties of funding a vast region with a tiny population. They'll also discover that the perennial efforts at moving the state capital from Juneau to someplace closer to the more populated Southcentral region commenced almost as soon as the gavel fell to open the first meeting of the Legislature.

One can't write about early statehood without mentioning the 1964 Good Friday earthquake that devastated Anchorage and many coastal communities. This is particularly true for a series focused on the human side of history, and this volume devotes more than 100 pages to the calamity. The damage the quake and subsequent tsunamis inflicted on Anchorage, Valdez, Kodiak, Whittier and elsewhere is recounted.

The "Aunt Phil's Trunk" books have a well-deserved reputation for being exhaustively illustrated with photographs on nearly every page, and the selection on the earthquake is especially dramatic with dozens of images of the disaster's aftermath.

The 1960s were a time for Alaska calamities, and later chapters tell of the 1964 fire that gutted the downtown of already-quake-damaged Cordova, and the 1967 flood that washed away much of Fairbanks.

Citizens' history

The other big story of Alaska's first quarter-century as a state is the intertwined battles over land distribution, Native claims and the oil discoveries that spurred action on all three fronts. The book pays tribute to Alaska Native leaders who worked the system from the inside through legal maneuvering, winning a historic victory with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Meanwhile the section on the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline includes some of the best pictures in this already well-illustrated volume.

As more of a citizens' history, the book includes things that would likely be left out of textbooks. There's an account of the first Iditarod, a chapter on how Alaskans dealt with the mentally ill, the story of an enormous flagpole that the city of Ketchikan donated to Anchorage, and several tales of high-profile murders, including the massacres in McCarthy and Manley that occurred about a year apart in the early 1980s.

Like previous volumes, chapters in this book are written in the style of newspaper features articles. They can easily stand alone while also adding to a greater whole. There are a couple of minor errors, but nothing glaring, and some important events are left out. But this isn't an academic work, this is popular history done well. The writing is engaging throughout and the pictures alone are worth the cost of the book.

By making her aunt's work available and adding her own touches, Downing Bill has brought Alaska's past to life in a way that should appeal even to those who rarely read history. Volume Five ends in 1984 and Downing Bill does not plan on taking it further, so the series is complete. And all of it is good.

David A. James is a Fairbanks based freelance writer and critic.

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