"Go This Way! Go North"
My choice of books, movies, and plays about Alaska and the North
A traveler asked me what I thought were good books about Alaska, its history and geography. I thought about that. I did read some books, 20 years ago, before I came here, and yes! – they did inspire and excite me to come. So here, as best as I remember, are some of the books I read.
The trouble with finding a book that describes Alaska is that Alaska is just so vast! Alaska has whole different worlds in it. The interior is very different from the maritime life of SE Alaska, and the Aleutian chain is another world yet again.
But all of the books below manage to catch the "Spirit of Alaska," something I have come to believe really exists. That spirit starts with a wee voice in your head that repeats, “Go North, just go North!” This attitude is nicely captured in the heraldry of the Alaska state flag – a dark blue field, with the stars of the big dipper, with its two pointer stars pointing at Polaris, the North Star. It whispers to you: “Yes, that's right: Go this way, go North!”
By the way, the flag was designed in 1927 by a 13 year old Alutiiq boy: John Ben "Benny" Benson Jr. who won a contest to design the flag for the Territory of Alaska.
Coming Into the Country
John McPhee captures Alaska with great characters, great places, and great writing.
The book is divided into three parts: the wilderness, urban Alaska, and life in the bush. For me, none of that stuff really deal with where I live, SE Alaska, but who cares? It is still great writing, and it still captures that “Alaska Spirit” thing: from miners, to Native Alaskans, to settlers, to Brown Bears.
It's been 20 years since I read it, but writing down this memory of it makes me want to read it again, so now I will have to.
Songs of a Sourdough
Robert Service is probably celebrated more on the Canadian side of the Yukon than on the Alaskan side, but either way, his poetry will catch the breath of any sourdough. I can not do him justice with my poor words. So let's use his. Here is a character setting out on a winter night to find a dead man that he had contracted to bury:
You know what it’s like in the Yukon wild when it’s sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine-trees crack like little guns in the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks under the parka hood;
When the stove-pipe smoke breaks sudden off, and the sky is weirdly lit,
And the careless feel of a bit of steel burns like a red-hot spit;
When the mercury is a frozen ball, and the frost-fiend stalks to kill —
Well, it was just like that that day when I set out to look for Bill.
From The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill
By Robert W. Service
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London. Seeing as we are talking about the Yukon, another great read is this fiction by Jack London about the Gold Rush.
Travels in Alaska
John Muir traveled around Alaska, soon after it was purchased from Russia, and wrote up this fantastic and vivid description of its wilderness and scenery.
Halibut Alaska -- a town with a lot of heart and a lot of fish
Fiction by Cruin MacGriogair (yes, me). Much as I am afraid to included myself in the vaulted company above, I do so in the hope that some of my stories about this small town will give you an idea of the Alaska character, and a few grins.
I love all three of these old movies, in large part because they were shot in Ketchikan, and show the mountains, fishing boats, and wooden docks around Thomas Basin Harbor. Squint a little, and they look like they were shot only yesterday:
The Silver Horde (1930)
Spawn of the North (1938)
Cry Vengeance (1954)
If I was forced to choose just one of these it would probably be Spawn of the North, but as I said, I love all three.
Fish Pirate's Daughter
by Bob Kinerk & Jim Alguire. You have to be in Ketchikan on certain evenings in July to catch this great old comedy musical that has been running here every summer for over 50 years. But if you are here for a performance, it is a must see!
Books I'd Like to Read:
The following two books I have not yet read, but I will soon, because I expect them to be great reads:
One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey
by Sam Keith, derived from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke. This book has inspired many people to visit Alaska since its publication in 1973. Richard Proenneke gave up a life of 50-hour workweeks and and instead went off to hew out a cabin, and a new life from the wilderness of Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. He survived for 30 years off what he found in the woods around him.
If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name?: News from Small-Town Alaska?
Heather Lende lives in Haines, which is in SE Alaska, a wee bit North of Ketchikan. I have to believe that her well-liked book will be more about the Alaska that I know: SE Alaska (so I will read it soon, I promise). Lende gathered these tales from writing the social columns and obituaries in the local Haines paper, so I expect she has a great perspective on what it's like to live in a small town in SE Alaska.
I will update this blog when I have read these last two books.