From the Last New Land I have learned innumerable things about my home state. I have also crept into the minds of dozens of real and fictional characters who have inhabited the state. I have rolled up the Tanana on a paddleboat near the turn of the century (1), I have stood beside my chief father as our villagers are taken hostage (2), I have sat silently, motionless, frigid, at the edge of a seal’s breathing hole, waiting for the inevitable surfacing (3), I have huddled, frostbitten, in a cavern near the summit of Denali (4), stripped roe from decapitated salmon on the cannery slime line (5), I have waited in the terminal of the Anchorage airport and drank beers and raged at flat-screen televisions in modern downtown bars (6).
The beauty of literature based in Alaska and the Yukon territory is that the subject matter, the potential cast of characters, are as richly varied as the landscape. Alaska offers the perfect setting for any tale: a harsh, unyielding Arctic wasteland, a sun-scorched endless summer on the tundra, a drippy, temperate rainforest.
There are centuries of various cultural actions and interactions to draw on, from thousands of burnished-skinned Asians traveling over Beringia to single white males living in stationary solitude, to waves of immigrants from countries near and far. The technological adaptations from nomadic hunter-gatherer to highly specialized whale and walrus spears to the industrial gold rush to the current modern wave of iphones and ubiquitous 3g access. The diverse animal life, from legendary bird-sized mosquitos to tiny voles, slim arctic fox to Kodiak bears to Blue whales, the largest mammal on the planet.
So much diversity and variation contained in one enormous land, yet the specialty of the Alaska writer seems to be to take a micro-slice of this diversity, a single cel in the mind-boggling animation of life in Alaska, and illuminate it; capture its color and beauty, depth and scope. This is arguably true for most good writers, but the added appeal of the wilderness, even when it isn’t so wild, is what draws the imagination and holds it fast. It’s what gives the land its appeal and writings about it an extra edge, a sharpness, a sweetness that pervades the prose, traveling across time and space and distilling the wonder that is Our Great Land.
1. Two in the Far North, Margaret E. Murie, pg 93
- Ashana, E.P. Roesch, pg 57
- Moon of the Returning Sun, Richard K. Nelson, pg 397
- March 1: -148*, Art Davidson, pg. 535
- Salmon Egg Puller, Nora Marks Dauehauer, pg. 709