Alaska

by James A. Michener

Hardcover, 1988

Collection

Description

Moving from Alaskan prehistory, to Russian exploration, to acquisition by the United States, to statehood, this richly detailed historical novel chronicles the high points of Alaska's history through the lives of fictional and historical characters.

User reviews

LibraryThing member davidabrams
When I first learned I would be moving to Alaska, courtesy of the Army, I was living in Georgia. The sticky-clothes humidity of Atlanta seemed such a far cry from the minty, glacial image I had of the 49th state. In the months preceding the move, I wanted to learn everything I could about Alaska before I ever set foot on my first snowflake.

[Note: “Learning everything‿ usually means reading books until my eyeballs dry up and fall out of my head.]

Alaska! I sniffed deeply of the humid Atlanta air, coughed on the exhaust fumes from the nearby interstate, then hiked down to the local bookstore. I grabbed John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, I snatched up Joe McGinniss’ Going to Extremes, I found Natalie Kusz’ Road Song. I read all those until my eyeballs went pink-a-plink onto the surface of my desk.

But there was one more book—the granddaddy of narratives, the mother of all tomes, the Mt. McKinley of literature: James Michener’s Alaska.

The simplicity of the title says it all. Of course, the same is true of nearly all his other books which masquerade as geography-history lessons. Iberia. Poland. Space. I’d never read a Michener book before. Alaska seemed as good a place to start as any.

Back in my sweltering apartment, I cranked the air conditioner on high and opened the book to the first of its 1,073 pages. About a billion years ago, long before the continents had separated to define the ancient oceans, or their own outlines had been determined, a small protuberance jutted out from the northwest corner of what would later become North America.

Uh-oh.

I settled myself in for a long summer’s nap. This is the trademark, start-with-prehistory method the author typically employs. It’s tedious, but I suppose he feels it’s necessary.

Michener goes on in a similar geologic vein for many pages, as he describes shifting subterranean plates, tectonic forces and the formation of the first snowballs in Alaska. It is a tough geology lesson; but to his credit, Michener makes it bearable.

It isn’t until 15 pages into Alaska that the first character is introduced. No, it’s not some bone-knife carrying Asian who wandered over on the Bering Strait land bridge. It’s a mastodon—you know, the kind of wooly mammoths that used to help Wilma Flintstone wash dishes. The first humans don’t walk onto the scene until page 39.

I think you see what I’m getting at. Michener takes his time. He is slow—glacially slow—at building the layers of the land’s history.

Reviewing Alaska the book is as daunting a task as reviewing Alaska the state. Oh, the sweep! The panorama! The cast of thousands (including mastodons and whales)!

Unlike Alaska the state, however, Alaska the book is dull. Oh, certainly Michener has all his facts in order and the reams of research—the very towering stacks of dust-collecting manuscripts he must have pored through!—is indeed impressive. This is history writ large, folks. But as I said, it’s also history writ lackluster. If I’m going to invest 1,073 pages and about twice as many minutes in a story about the Union’s largest and wildest state, then I want to come away shaking and dripping perspiration. The only time I broke a sweat was when the air conditioning went on the fritz and I was stuck reading about frigid blizzards in 90-degree Atlanta heat.

Mr. Michener knows his stuff when it comes to the events and people of Alaska. The ancient whale-hunters, the first Russian explorers, the fur traders, the missionaries, the gold prospectors, the salmon fishermen, the wilderness pilots, the World War Two combat troops on the Aleutian islands, the politicians wrangling for statehood in 1959, the environmentalists, the hunting guides, the oil-drilling roughnecks, the dog mushers, the mountain climbers, the urban latte-sipping Anchorage residents—they’re all here, crowded into this pulp-and-ink landscape. Does Michener take liberties with history? Probably. Is he comprehensive? Certainly. Does he keep you awake at nights with his epic narrative? Barely.

I work with a very nice lady who swears up and down that Michener is the greatest writer who ever walked the face of this earth. I would kindly point her in the direction of Messrs. Hemingway, Chekhov and Shakespeare, but the sad hell of it is, she’s read them, too.

“There was no one like James Michener!‿ she gushes.

“That’s true,‿ (muttering under breath) “thank God.‿

When it comes to creating believable characters and, most importantly, describing them in page-turning prose, Michener is downright clumsy. Here, for instance, is how he first describes just one of the thousand characters in Alaska:

Forty-three years old, he had a complete beard and heavy mustache to make his little face look more dignified, a matter which concerned him deeply, for he wished always to impress strangers favorably despite his diminutive stature. His exact height would always be a matter of debate, for his detractors, a numerous band, claimed that he was under five feet, which was preposterous; he referred to himself as five four, which was equally absurd; because he favored built-up shoes, he looked to be about five two. But whatever his height, he often looked a dwarf among men markedly taller than he.

A few paragraphs later, there’s an “action‿ sequence:

As he neared the top of the hill he was hit by a blast of snow borne by a strong wind what came howling over the crest, and for just a moment his little feet lost their hold and he slipped backward, but he quickly caught himself, struggled to the top, and saw below him, as he had know he would, the flickering lights of Deadhorse.

The rest of the book doesn’t vary much from that overwritten prose style. It’s as if Michener scrawled the manuscript with a pen clutched in a fist: large, bold, uninventive strokes.

In all fairness, I will say that I learned a great deal about the Last Frontier before I boarded the plane in Atlanta and traveled to Fairbanks for my first three-year stay in the state. As I flew over the endless mountain ranges—stacked like jagged rocks dusted with powdered sugar snow—I thought to myself, “Well, I certainly know as much about this place as the average high school student who sits through a year of State History.‿

[By the way, when I later moved to Texas for three years, I picked up Michener’s volume by the same name for a literary crash course of that state as well. Upon my return north to Fairbanks four years ago, I toyed with the idea of going through Alaska again as a refresher course, then I thought, “Naw…ain’t gonna be the same fool thrice.‿]

Of course, prior to coming here, I didn’t have a good grasp of what truly makes Alaska the pristine heaven it is. Reading Alaska, I had no way of knowing what it feels like to have the skin on your face stretched tight by minus-30-degree weather, or the way you can practically hear the multi-colored aurora borealis shimmering like folds of rustling silk or how you’ll use every last ounce of your strength when you’re in a wrestling contest with a 45-pound king salmon thrashing on the other end of the fishing line. That’s the Alaska I didn’t get from Alaska.

I suppose you don’t read a James Michener book for its page-turning prospects. You invest your time in his tomes for the education you receive about a particular land and its people—sort of a mini crash-course in science and history. That’s why you can bear up under passages like this:

In the early days the land was not hospitable to settlers. Animals and human beings who came to this promontory had to adjust to profound cold, great distances and meager food supplies, which meant that the men and women who survived would always be a somewhat special breed: adventurous, heroic, willing to contest the great winds, the endless nights, the freezing winters, the cruel and never-ending search for food. They would be people who lived close to the unrelenting land both because they had to and because they reveled in the challenge.

Not unlike reading Michener’s book itself.
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
I read this book just before moving to Alaska, along with many others. This was the second most informative, and although I would not go back to it, I am glad I read it. In traditional Michner style, he charts the history of Alaska from its initial bump into what is now North America, to the pipeline. He focuses mainly on Southeast Alaska, which, I suppose is fair because that is where much of the early development happened, but it seems the interior gets short shrift. The Fairbanks area, my hometown, is basically overlooked. Oh well.

If you like Michner, and want to learn a bit more about Alaska, and understand that historical fiction is primarily fiction, this would be a good book for you. His characters are flat, but the terrain, which is really the main character of the novel, is well represented.
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LibraryThing member pegn
I never could get into Michener's books. It was all those boring amoeba and fossils in the first chapter that would bore me to sleep. But somewhere along the way I was even more bored and needed something to read so I picked up a copy of Alaska at a longterm campground. I still couldn't get past the first chapter so, knowing there was an earthquake in the final chapter, I headed towards the back. And enjoyed that last chapter. So I read the second last chapter to see what led to the last chapter. And enjoyed the second last chapter. So I read the third last chapter to see what had led to the two last chapters. And I enjoyed that chapter, too. Well, 120% humidity in southeast Missouri, no breeze and not wanting to move at all, I continued to read the chapters backwards. And, dangit!, wouldn't you know it... by the time I got to the first chapter, I wanted to know what happened with all those amoeba and fossils.

Since then, I've read several Michener novels, and enjoyed each of them... last chapter first, first chapter last. You have to love a writer who can do that :-)
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LibraryThing member santhony
Typical Michener historical fiction novel. The subject, Alaska, makes it one of his finest.
LibraryThing member alexis3700
An amazing book, spanning wooly mamouths, land bridges, tribes, russians, gold rush, fish, and tidal waves. I knew that Alaska was a vast state, with a rich history, but I had no idea how far it spanned and how much it encompassed. Michener brought this far place right home to me. From the Mammoth's trials, to the fish's fight to return and survive. From the russians need to construct a church to the gold rushers need to dig through permafrost. Simply amazing and eye opening.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevetempo
A great way to get to know Alaska! Michener presents the big picture with respect to the issues and development of Alaska by interweaving great stories and characters over the history of this great land. I read this while on an Alaskan cruise and it made the cruise that much more meaningful. This was my second Michener book, I had read Space in the 1980's and I think I shall read another in the near future.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Classic Michener - Huge spans of time and interesting characters. James Michener scares me sometimes to realize what an enormous amount of research and retention this man must be capable of. Sweeping and wonderful book.
LibraryThing member madamejeanie
So begins an epic novel that starts with the dawn of time and covers a
sweeping history of the land that became our 49th state. Michener follows
the first inhabitants who made the major migration across the land bridge
between what would become Siberia to the frozen far north reaches of the
continent of North America. From the violent upheaval of volcanic activity
and terrane movement that formed the jagged and rugged land, through the
time of the mighty mastodons, to the mammoths and saber tooth tigers and
massive bears, to the final settlement of the Arctic by primitive people who
would become the Athapascans, the Aleuts and the Eskimos, Michener spins a
tale that is gripping and engrossing. As in all of his epics, he follows a
handful of people who settled the land down through the generations, telling
their stories and through them, the story of the land itself. Russians,
Englishmen, Americans, gold hunters, charlatans, thieves, runaways,
reprobates and heroes, all are described with a richness that is uniquely
Michener.

I don't read one of his tomes very often, but I've never been disappointed
yet. The story is so detailed and so rich that I can't just race through
it, so I've been reading this one book for weeks now, but it was worth every
minute. I don't think Michener is capable of writing a bad book. This one
gets a high 5.
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LibraryThing member readinggeek451
A sweeping overview of the history of Alaska from the ancient geology to the present-day (as of 20 years ago when this was written). This isn't straight history; it's interwoven with fictional characters, although there is a brief listing in the front of which is which. This is too episodic to be a proper novel, but the sections aren't shaped like short stories. It's good reading, though, whatever it is.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jthierer
Good read with several themes that carry throughout the book, even when the characters change. My only complaint is the somewhat simplistic "good" vs. "bad" treatments of some characters/situations.
LibraryThing member LTW
The book begins a billion years ago. Its first characters are the mastadon and the woolly mammoth, followed by such other settlers as the Eskimos, Athapaskans, and Russians. Vignettes of characters as varied as the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, who explored Alaska for Russia's Peter the Great, and Kendra Scott, the young Colorado teacher who taught the Eskimo children during the recent Prudhoe Bay oil boom, illustrate the colorful history of this vast and exploited land.… (more)
LibraryThing member bcrowl399
I wanted to finish this book in 2018, but alas, I couldn't finish it by December 31st. Now, I've managed to push through the last 150 pages. It was an excellent read as are all of Michener's, and I learned a lot about a place I knew almost nothing about. I am amazed Alaska has been settled given the lengths to which all of the settlers had to go to even to survive. I'm not made of that stern stuff so kudos to all of them. I appreciate their efforts. Maybe someday I will be able to travel to Alaska and see some of the wonderful sights described in this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
James A. Michener is known for his highly detailed narrative and pages-long expository on the history of a region. When done correctly, a reader is taken on a whirlwind adventure through time, following the growth and development of an area through the eyes of the land and of a select few founding families. When done poorly, the effect is more like a lengthy history textbook. Alas, Alaska falls into the latter category.

What Michener does well can become nauseatingly boring over time without a human factor. Where there is a human factor, the construct of the overall novel is such that the human factor is deliberately interrupted. Each chapter is like an individual novella. There is some attempt to connect the characters through the generations and across the state, but the individual chapters and lack of depth of character development creates an extremely disjointed story.

In addition, there is an undercurrent of dispassion and lack of affection for Alaska that does not exist in some of Michener's other works. The best example of this would be Hawaii. His love of the South Pacific is palpable on every page. It is not overt, but it is something that permeates all of his descriptions and makes them more vivid. Unfortunately, the descriptions of Alaska are more rote and clinical. The fascination with the flora and fauna is missing, and the reader is left struggling through dry and lengthy descriptions.

At 868 pages, Alaska is simply too long. There are too many native Alaskans, too much land, and too much political infighting. Michener's choice of creating stand-alone chapters does nothing to help foster understanding or clarity. Readers looking for something similar to the magical Hawaii or even the excellent Chesapeake are guaranteed to be disappointed. The lack of memorable generational families and tedious descriptions make this more of a slog than something to enjoy.
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LibraryThing member breic
Epic. I haven't read Michener in many years, but he's a great storyteller. This was a fun way to learn a lot of Alaskan history, from outsiders' perspectives.
LibraryThing member tkcs
This was a painless and entertaining way to learn a lot about Alaska. I'm glad to understand more about the geography, history and politics of the place I was born, and it was good preparation for our upcoming cruise.
LibraryThing member joeydag
I read an essay recently that discussed great science fiction novels that started out as short stories that ended up getting linked together to create the novel. I think Michener might have worked the same way. There are plenty of wonderful short stories in this novel that spans thousands of years as the author usually did in his novels. It is difficult to criticize the method. I find that I like the style in that I can walk away and come back later. Some stories are compelling and other just move along. I don't follow the reading so closely as to notice the changes in rhythm but I suppose one could. Good reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member buffalogr
This is an epic novel. It contains many wonderful short stories and spans thousands of years from the prehistoric times of the land bridge right up to the 1990s. As always, there are many characters and scenarios; all enjoyable. As an audible listen, it's nearly 60 hours long and required over a week of listening. Michener made several historic political points, among them military, economic and political. All brought home through the book's characters. "Alaska" was made real for me this time because I just finished a tour there and the landscape was familiar from Dawson to Juneau.… (more)
LibraryThing member witchyrichy
This was not my favorite Michener. I found it tough to get involved with the various characters. But he did do a good job of showing just how disastrous the settlers were for the native peoples.
LibraryThing member rudik5834
The development of Alaska from earliest times,from pre-history through several million years to the arrival of the earliest hunters,the battle to adapt this harsh and chilling land.
A thrilling history,the story of man against nature to survive,shaping the land,fighting it, building it up and falling under its spell.
It is the tale of explorers, Russian,American,European contesting the colonisation,exploiting its valuable recources.Up to the present its still adventure and contesting nature.
Brilliantly captured in a rich and absorbing narrative.
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Genres

Publication

Random House (1988), Edition: First Edition, 868 pages

Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

1988

Physical description

868 p.; 6.5 x 2 inches

ISBN

0394569814 / 9780394569819
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