Book Review: James Michener's Alaska

In nearly 1,100 pages, James Michener depicts Alaska’s billion years of natural and human history through vivid characters and gripping stories. His epic narrative begins with the 49th State’s geological genesis and proceeds to the migration of its first inhabitant, the discovery and exploration of early sea explorers and the explorations of Russian fur traders, before moving on to describe the famous transfer to American ownership, subsequent gold rush and Alaska’s role in WWII. Michener sets his story in an authentic historical context and paints a vivid picture of this desolate land. His landscape is peopled with unforgettable characters shaped by their association with Alaksa’s grandeur, its unforgiving harshness, and its everlasting beauty.

Michener portrays geography and history in a compelling, accessible way. There are no dry dates to remember. You can feel the weight of the load Bering and his team bore for three years and six thousand miles across Siberia to build a ship to sail eastward; your heart is filled with rage on hearing how mother and baby otters were killed together, and how pregnant seals were killed for their babies’ skin; your ego is humbled by the persistence and courage of the men and women who crossed the Chilkoot Pass to stake a vain claim at the Klondike, only to perish, penniless and far from home.

In the mind’s eye, the reader glimpses the snow-capped volcanic peak of Mt. Whistler rearing above Sitka’s green harbor. Sitka, the “Paris of the Pacific”, stands as a celebration of the achievements of a Russian merchant, Baranov. Baranov’s cunning and ruthlessness led him to conquer the war-hungry Tglingits, while his managerial and disciplinary talents enabled him to harvest the sea for its abundant resources. Not only did Baranov give order to a notoriously unruly region, he also established a strong Russian Orthodox Church that survives to this day. And all this at a time when Chicago and San Francisco barely existed.

Michener offers lessons from the lives of the great explorers drawn as magnets toward the Alaskan wilderness. Bering, the first, discovered Alaska on a voyage ordered by the Russian Tsar. James Cook diligently mapped the coast of Alaska after his famous discovery of Australia and the Pacific islands. Like Baranov, these figures displayed unbelievable courage in face of hardship and superb managerial talents in rallying their troops to face overwhelming challenges. All made significant contributions to humankind, even though only one was properly recognized during his lifetime. But were not the gold rushers, who suffered so much in their quest for riches, as courageous, resourceful and tenacious? Tens of thousands of them arrived in Alaska, but for almost all their dreams turned to dust. Their names will never be known, remembered or admired.
Alaska presents history in an easily digestible form, although its towering characters do sometimes tempt the reader to reflect on his own humble place in history. How do we compare to the noble ones, the nimble, the oppressed, the brave and the lucky? Where would we ever appear in a history book? Where will we appear in our own history book?

The story of this great state is especially poignant when you consider how Alaska has fared in recent times. Less than three hundred years after its discovery, Alaska has lost most of its native inhabitants. Its wildlife, too, is struggling: sea otter, seal and whale are just a few of the once plentiful species that are just surviving under protection. Its wilderness is constantly under the threat of existing and potential oil drillers. Yet in some ways Alaska remains what it always has been: a dramatic and captivating land, abundant in natural beauty and peopled with men and women leading lives on the frontier of human existence.