The high points in the story of Alaska since the American acquisition are brought vividly to life through more than 100 characters, real and fictional. Another told-from-the-beginning-of-time Michener saga, this one featuring Alaska. 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. Early on the book is vintage Michener, but the momentum encounters an Arctic chill midway. Final sections are trite, uneven, and overloaded with stereotypes. Too cumbersome to be called fiction, but Michener fans will demand it anyway.
[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.
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.
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.
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 :-)
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
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.
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.
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.