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'Samplers' delivers fascinating cross-section of Alaska writers

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 13, 2015

Years ago, when I was first hired to review Alaska and northern-themed books for another newspaper, I initially wondered if enough of them were being published to sustain a column. I soon learned that there were more than I could hope to keep up with. Alaska, it turns out, has an abundance of fine writers.

What they lack isn't skill, it's distribution and publicity.

Longtime Alaska author Deb Vanasse has tackled this problem head-on. Having experienced first hand the difficulties of getting her work into stores and promoted, she recently launched the online website Running Fox Books as a way to help Alaska writers connect with readers and reach a broader audience. The site offers a carefully selected collection of some of the best works presently available, chosen by a small committee of some of Alaska's better known scribes, along with links to where they can be obtained.

To quote from the store's mission statement: "An Alaska-inspired author cooperative, Running Fox, is dedicated to high-quality books that inspire, engage, and transform. We promote books with strong commercial literary appeal, written by spirited, independent authors who care about language and the shared pleasure of a good book."

Alaska Samplers

Another way Running Fox is promoting Alaska authors is through a series of annual Alaska Samplers, ebooks that are free for download through the site. Edited by Vanesse and award-winning science fiction author David Marusek of Fairbanks, these collections – there have been two so far – offer a variety of short pieces that will help readers discover writers they might not have previously encountered and find works that they want to dig into more deeply.

The collections include fiction and nonfiction, ranging from crime stories to comedy, adventure narratives to introspection, personal memoir to political polemic. The constant is the quality of the material, which is strong throughout.

The 2014 edition leans toward nonfiction and opens with a very funny account of climbing Chilkoot Pass by popular mystery writer Dana Stabenow. She devotes much of the piece to hyperbolically whining her way up the mountainside. It would be insufferable were it not hysterical. Very few people can make complaining entertaining, but Stabenow will have readers laughing all the way to the top.

A more harrowing hike is found in an excerpt from "Canyons and Ice," Kaylene Johnson's lengthy book about the legendary extreme adventurer Dick Griffith. The selection tells of how he once literally froze his butt off on a winter trek out of Anaktuvuk Pass.

The memoir end is held up by Leigh Newman, who recalls a childhood summer in Anchorage with her divorced father. Jan Harper-Haines, meanwhile, recounts her Athabascan mother's life in Fairbanks and an incident in a haunted roadhouse in Circle City. Former Anchorage Daily News editor Howard Weaver combines memoir with politics in a blistering critique of how the Prudhoe Bay oil strike forever changed the character of both Alaska and the people who live here.

On the fiction side, Vanasse provides an excerpt from her recent novel "Cold Spell" (outtakes from the same book are found in the 2015 Sampler), Tanyo Ravicz offers a preview of "Wildwood," a work in progress set on Kodiak Island, Marusek steps out of his usual science fiction realm in a borderline horror piece about the showdown between two parties of a love triangle in the Bush, and Don Reardon supplies a very brief story about digging a grave through permafrost in winter for a beloved village elder.

'Raven's Letter to Edgar'

The 2014 Sampler closes out with "Raven's Letter to Edgar" by Ned Rozell, Alaska's most lyrical science writer. Here the wise and wise-cracking critter schools Edgar Allan Poe on how ravens survive where other birds can't and reveals what they think of humans.

The 2015 volume is heavier on fiction. In "Winter Too Short, Too Loud" Jerry D. McDonnell tells the story of a Native woman who has never encountered white people until she is pursued by them after killing her husband's murderer. Set in the earlier part of the twentieth century, it's an examination of the clash between indigenous and Western justice and of a woman incapable of understanding the system that has been thrust upon her people.

Vivian Faith Prescott also explores the divide between Native and white Alaskans in "House Falling Into the Sea," a story taking place in Wrangell, with climate change as an additional complicating factor.

The good-natured Homer writer Richard Chiappone gives us a sadly comic tale of the teenaged son of self-absorbed hippie parents who does the one thing that might get their attention, but who then can't bring himself to tell them.

Crime fiction also surfaces. C. B. Bernard recounts a murder on a Southeast island under incessant rain, while Gerri Brightwell lends a heavy noir feel to Fairbanks at 57 below in a preview from her forthcoming novel "From Dead of Winter."

Sneak peek

Marusek also provides a sneak peak of his next book, "Upon This Rock." Set in a fictionalized version of McCarthy, it features a park ranger, a family of religious extremists clearly patterned on the Pilgrims, and space aliens. The awesomeness potential for this one is off the charts and I'm calling dibs on reviewing it when it comes out.

On the nonfiction side, there are memoir excerpts from the ever-popular Heather Lende, a heart-wrenching piece by John Tetpon about growing up Native in a time of cultural genocide, and beautiful reminiscences by T. Louise Freeman-Toole of two different Eagle residents who lived and died on their own terms.

There's plenty more in both volumes. The Alaska Sampler series is a great way for Alaskans to discover the broad range of talented authors in their midst. For this reviewer it was a reminder that even after years of covering this beat, I've barely scratched its surface. I won't be wanting for good books anytime soon.

Both Alaska Samplers are available for download in multiple formats at They are free, although a donation is requested to help cover the costs of maintaining the site and the program it supports.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based author and critic.

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