Vintage postcard from Arkansas

Vintage postcard from Arkansas

I have never actually set foot in Arkansas, so it was a pleasure to read my way around the state and discover some of its essence through literature.  I knew that former President Bill Clinton hailed from Hope, Arkansas and that Maya Angelou grew up in Stamps, but I really knew very little about this part of America.  I learned that Arkansas played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement in the hard battle to integrate schools.  And that the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed to be extinct, focussed national attention on the importance of preserving wilderness and natural habitats.

Map of Arkansas

Map of Arkansas

Arkansas postcard extolling the "Natural State"

Arkansas postcard extolling the “Natural State”

I again consulted with a local reference librarian for book recommendations.  Robert, a librarian with the Central Arkansas Library System, consulted with some of his colleagues and sent me this list of suggested Arkansas titles:

Adult Fiction:

  • The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
  • Camp Nine: A Novel by Vivienne Schiffer
  • Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • A Really Cute Corpse by Joan Hess
  • Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Adult Nonfiction:

  • Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr
  • Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals
  • Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems by Miller Williams


  • The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
  • Summer of My German Soldier by Bettye Green
  • Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Arkansas Stories by Charlie May Simon
  • Loop by Karen Akins (classified as young adult)
  • Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (graphic novel)

Here are books about Arkansas or by Arkansas writers that I actually read on my armchair travels:

Adult Fiction:

The Lord God Bird by Tom Gallant.  This is the story of a middle-aged man, a widower, who lives alone in the Big Woods of Arkansas in a house his grandfather built.  We never learn his name, but he is “a solitary man with a bluetick hound named Paul, and a good working farm.”  One day while out on his hand-built canoe, he gets a glimpse of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird he remembers last seeing as a young boy and now thought to be extinct.  He realizes that the return of this elusive bird might revitalize his dying town and save the diminishing Big Woods habitat.  When he makes the sighting known, researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology visit to find evidence that the bird is real — photos of course, but also sound tapes of its raps and kells, and markings on the trees such as scarred bark and nesting hollows.

Gallant imagines the bird’s point of view as well, a creature of long memory who has returned with his mate to see whether life would be viable in this long abandoned woods.  The pairs mate for life and need about 10 square miles of old growth forest to support life nourished by scavenging for grubs on dying trees.  But the search for food takes the birds farther from the nest every day.  “The whole fabric of life that was the Big Woods seemed to be diminished with each season that passed.  There was less of everything except for weather.  The rains were more violent, the winds carried more force, and the dry spells were more parched.  There was a great change happening, and the bird wished for a glimpse of the long-past panther.  That the cats were gone filled him with dread.  When the cats were there, they were dread made visible, the sleek and beautiful embodiment of mortal danger.  Life then was as it should be.  Now, danger seemed to be everywhere, and it had no face, except, perhaps, for humans.”

This fictionalized account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker shows the mixed blessings this kind of attention attracts.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.  The ivory-billed woodpecker symbolizes life starting over, things coming back from the dead, and second chances, and that is the theme of this second title, which is catalogued as Young Adult fiction in my library.  Cullen Witter is a bored teenager living in Lily, a small town halfway between Little Rock and Memphis.  He says, “Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot.”  He observed, “That’s what happened in Lily.  People dreamed.  People left. And they all came back.  It was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole, nothing could escape it.”

But starting with the first sentence of this novel — “I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.” — the scene is set for changes in Lily.  There is a report of an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting, and like many people, Cullen wonders whether the whole thing is a scam:  “. . . our town needed that bird . . . They needed something to be hopeful about.”  And then Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel disappears without a trace.  Would the miracle of Lazarus bird’s return grace his brother’s return as well?

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield.  Each year the Moses family gathers on the first Sunday in June for its annual reunion on the old Arkansas farm.  The patriarch, John Moses, had long since retired from farming.  His wife Calla opened a convenience store called “Moses” on the remodelled front porch.  And John, in a pique after an argument with his wife, remodels the back porch into “Moses Never Closes,” where he served liquor “by donation.”

“And that’s the way things went along, right until the day John Moses died.  Moses Never Closes was something folks counted on.  It was a certain place in an uncertain world.  Folks wanted it to stay the way it was, because once you change one part of a thing, all the other parts begin to shift, and pretty soon, you just don’t know what’s what anymore.”

Change is set in motion during the 1956 reunion when John Moses takes a gun and kills himself.  His daughter Willadee, visiting from Louisiana, stays on to help out.  Her husband, Samuel Lake, loses his preaching job and moves with his daughter Swan to his in-laws’ farmhouse.  There he suffers a crisis of faith.  He is unable to find another preaching job, his wife is working in a bar, his oldest son is bullied and does not buy into his advice to turn the other cheek, his brother-in-law is becoming a beloved father figure to his kids, and his family is frustrated in protecting a neighbor boy from his abusive father.  This is a novel about the testing of faith, holding out for miracles, and the healing power of love.

A Painted House by John Grisham.  This is another novel about a multi-generational family in 1950s Arkansas.  Seven-year old Luke lives with his parents on his grandfather’s and grandmother’s farm.  They are cotton farmers who rent the land, and who have no higher aspirations than to make it from year to year without going under financially.  “The only farmers who made money were those who owned their land.  The renters, like us, tried to break even.  The sharecroppers had it worst and were doomed to eternal poverty.”

Luke’s mother harbored no illusions about this precarious life and she and Luke have an agreement that he will go to college and eventually leave the farm.  She had been raised on a small farm on the edge of town and was almost a town girl.  She never had to walk to school, and she had lived in a “painted house.”  She found her pleasures in the garden.

This novel takes place during the cotton picking season, when they hired itinerant hill people and migrant Mexicans in a race to pick the cotton before the fall rains.  Everyone pitched in, even Luke:  “My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.”  The hard work was relieved by small pleasures:  listening to the St. Louis Cardinal baseball games on the porch of an evening, Saturday excursions to town and the matinée movie, letters from an uncle in service in Korea,  a visiting carnival.  But secrets and tensions build during the harvest.  A 15-year old neighbor girl gives birth out of wedlock and it appears that Luke’s uncle is the father.  Luke witnesses one of the hill workers fight and beat a man to death.  And later he sees this man knifed by one of their Mexican workers.  The weather provides the final defeat, flooding the crop before the harvest is complete.

True Grit by Charles Portis.  This novel takes place in the 1870s on the edge of the frontier.  Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn, “a man of true grit,” to avenge her father’s murder.  The murderer, Tom Chaney, a former hired hand, stole away into Indian territory, and Mattie is determined to track him down.  She’s resolute, single-minded, and a hard customer whose Old Testament morality gives her the backbone to keep Cogburn in line until her objective is realized.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  This novel by an Arkansas author creates a world after death, a kind of way station where the inhabitants stick around only as long as they are remembered by someone on earth.  Then they disappear.  They stay the same age as when they died on earth, and they cannot reproduce.  So the population in this afterlife ebbs and grows in relation to events on earth — floods, wars, earthquakes, epidemics, etc.  Now people are disappearing at an alarming rate; it turns out there is a lethal virus killing off everyone on earth.  The few hangers on in the afterlife realize that their existence is tied to the life of perhaps the last person alive on earth — a researcher in remote Antarctica who has been abandoned there.  What will happen when she dies?

I liked this novel for opening my imagination.  I was raised Catholic, so am familiar with the concepts of limbo and purgatory but Brockmeier’s afterlife is different.  He doesn’t depict the people working to achieve any goal or release; they just seem to exist without worries, imagination, or urges to accomplish anything.  They don’t even seem to ruminate about what life on earth was all about.  Nor do they wonder about what happens next when they disappear from this temporary existence.  I thought the premise was interesting, but this alternative world was not fleshed out enough for me.

Strangled Prose by Joan Hess.  This is a rather light and formulaic mystery from the Claire Malone mystery series.  I do enjoy reading mysteries, and I thought this one might be interesting because Claire owns a bookstore in a college town in Arkansas.  But it failed to entice me to read any more books in this series.

Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer. This book tells “a story based on the improbability of nearly ten thousand Americans of Japanese descent suddenly appearing in the Arkansas Delta in the 1940s.”  The story of Camp Nine is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Chess Morton, the granddaughter of the wealthiest landholder in the area.  Hers was a world where unspoken rules shaped the interactions between blacks and whites, where everyone moved more slowly than the rest of the world:  ” . . . the Delta is mysterious, the kind of place where so many things happen that go unnoticed by the outside world.  The overwhelming stillness of the countryside and the oppressive flatness of the terrain, cleared almost entirely now of trees, slow the passage of time.  The air is molasses in summer, an iron blanket of cold in winter.  The vast landscape tricks the mind into thinking that gravity is somehow stronger here, that the bayous and the canebreaks can pin you against them so that even light can’t escape.”

The internment camp was an enterprise conducted in secret, and the Japanese American families were isolated behind barbed wire.  Most of the community conspired to pretend that there was nothing wrong with things that were kept out of sight:  ” . . . mostly, we separated ourselves from them, by refusing to acknowledge they were even there.”

Chess’s mother, something of an outcast herself, refuses to turn a blind eye.  She calls the Japanese American families her neighbors, and she begins teaching art classes to the children and adults in the camp.  Chess accompanies her and her experiences there open her eyes to a different world.  For one thing, the Japanese culture valued education, and even adults wanted to continue to learn new things.  She learns  more about racism and honor when she sees young Japanese American men look past what was done to them and go to fight and die in the American Army.

Almost 20 years later, Chess is visited by David Matsui, one of her camp friends.  He is now a renowned blues musician and lives in London because he cannot forgive the way Americans treated him and his family.  “I’m not white, Chess.  I always thought I was, growing up.  But I didn’t really know what white was until the United States government carved us out of the white race, set us on a plate, and served us up into a dark corner of Arkansas.  That’s when I learned what white really is.  It’s separate.  It’s sheltered.  It’s a race apart.”  Camp Nine is a bittersweet story, but well worth reading.

Adult Nonfiction

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose.  This is a nonfiction account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas and the controversy that still surrounds the findings.  This magnificent woodpecker’s story is one of extinction due to habitat destruction.  It thrived in vast tracts of virgin forest where enough dead and dying trees provided its food.  Its disappearance occurred after the intense logging that began in the 1880s.

In 2004 Gene Sparling reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.  His sighting was confirmed and supported by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and other scientists.  Since then, the evidence has been challenged.

Regardless of their stance on the veracity of the ivory-billed woodpecker sightings, scientists and conservationists remain united and dedicated to preserving species by saving threatened habitats.  “To become extinct is the greatest tragedy in nature.”  The book states that 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, caused by everything from meteorites to drought.  But today’s massive extinctions are caused by humans.

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards




Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards.  Richards, a northerner, first came to the Arkansas delta in 1959 as a VISTA volunteer, and his photographs document the dignity and endurance of its inhabitants.

“You cross the Mississippi into Arkansas, pass a few miles of strip malls, trunk stops, and motels and the landscape comes to look like an abstract painting, with wide, flat fields and the sky pressed together.  There’s a migrant worker camp north of the interstate peppered with bullet holes, tractors in the distance throwing off dust, farmhouses here and there, but no people that you can see.  It’s August and nothing much forces people indoors like the heat. . . . And as happens whenever you return to the delta, the space between things that came to pass long years ago and the way it is now begins to collapse.”

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. This young adult memoir tells the story of Melba Pattillo, one of the Little Rock Nine. She paints a picture of life under segregation: “Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you’re teething and says, ‘Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.’ Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation carry over you, slowly stealing a teaspoon of your self-esteem every day.” Pattillo watched adults in her family kowtow to white people, a shameful and humiliating and threatened existence.

The Little Rock Nine shared some things in common: they came from hard-working families (some parents, including Pattillo’s mother, were teachers); they were church-goers; they planned on going to college. Pattillo’s grandmother was a strong support and influence, and she taught: “We are not these bodies, we are spirits, God’s ideas. But you must strive to be the best of what God made you. You don’t want to be white, what you really want is to be free, and freedom is a state of mind.”

Without the support of Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, other Black activists like Thurgood Marshall, community leaders, and the soldiers who were in the school to protect them, the Little Rock Nine would likely have been subverted from attending school. The reprisals, physical and mental attacks inside the school, threats to family members, and mob rule were insidious. Pattillo’s New Year’s resolution for 1958 was, “To do my best to stay alive until May 28” (when the school year ended). They persevered because they simply could not let the segregationists win. And where we are today is the result of their courage.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angleou.  Angelou was born in California, but at the age of three she was sent, accompanied only by her four-year-old brother, across country to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.  This was a segregated small town, and she really didn’t see white folks as a child:  “Crossing the Black area of Stamps which childhood’s narrow measure seemed the whole world, we were obligated by custom to stop and speak to every person we met. . . ”

“People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream.”

Angelou’s grandmother owned the Black general store.  “Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion, and ‘her place.'”

At age seven, Angelou and her brother were taken to live with their mother in St. Louis where they were immersed in urban culture — store-bought food, numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers, whiskey salesmen, and “shockingly bad” schools.  Angelou also got her first library card.  At age eight, Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and then raped.  He was brought to trial, found guilty, given a one year suspended sentence, and then murdered.  Angelou, already traumatized by the rape, now felt responsible in some way for the death of this man.  With the sense that words were dangerous, she stopped talking.  And was sent back to Stamps.

There she found a lifeline in Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a model for the kind of woman Angelou wanted to be.  “She was one of the first gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be. . . . It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.”

Flowers gave her lessons in living and books to read, and challenged her to read aloud:  “Your grandmother says you read a lot.  Every chance you get.  That’s good, but not good enough.  Words mean more than what is set down on paper.  It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Angelou stayed in Stamps until her eighth grade graduation, and the rest of her memoir tells about her move to San Francisco to live with her mother during high school.  And it ends with her teen pregnancy and the birth of her son.  This is the story of a woman who overcomes tremendous life challenges to become a gifted writer and artist of life.

Halfway from Hoxie by Miller Williams.  I find reading poetry a challenge.  So many poems are inscrutable and hard to penetrate.  I guess I just don’t want to work that hard to enjoy literature.  So I won’t even attempt to review the poems in this volume, but instead will share one from the collection:

“Depot in a River Town”

In the depot and the darkened day
the clack of an old pinball machine
demands a curious notice.
More sleeping than not
a satchel faced farmer makes noises.
A sailor circles like a child in church.

In the depot and the darkened day
I surrender my back to the imperative bench,
unlistening hear the emphatic pencil
tap itself on the table.

The little blond reads
and fingers the cloth of her blouse
like a nun telling beads.

Cracked across after an ancient painting
the face of the woman with children
ignores and ignores.
There is fog at the windows
and the open doors.

Within the ear’s rim rises a separate sound.
Wood slapping side slipping water sounds
settle me deep.
I feel again the penny in my pocket
and the slow sleep of the river
wraps me round.

Little Rock Girl

Little Rock Girl

Juvenile Books

Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration by Shelley Tougas.  In 1954 a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, found that the practice of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.  As a result, schools in the south were forced to integrate.

Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old student, was one of nine African American teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School on September 4, 1957.  Although their admittance was allowed by federal judges, the Arkansas governor ordered that the Arkansas National Guard block entry.  The vitriolic confrontation was recorded by photographer Will Counts, an image that captured the deep roots of racism in the south.

The nine Black students were prevented from attending school that day, but President Eisenhower brought in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the federal order.  So integration happened, but subject to bullying, torment, taunting and attacks.  The next year the governor closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools rather than allow integration to move forward.

This book is a testimony to the courage, perseverance, and resilience of nine teenagers and the community of Civil Rights activists who wrought needed change.  An update on the fates of the “Little Rock Nine” reveals a group of extraordinarily accomplished adults — at least five with master’s degrees.

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green.  Patty is a 12-year-old Jewish girl from Jenkensville, Arkansas.  She feels unloved by her parents, whom she can never please.  But the tensions with her parents are offset somewhat by the loving care of their Black housekeeper, Ruth, and her maternal grandparents.

The town becomes the base for a semi-secret camp for German POWs, and Patty crosses paths with a young POW named Anton.  When he escapes from the camp, Patty hides him for a while and then helps him to escape.  Anton is a scholar and a former medical student and Patty thrives under conversations with him.  They discuss whether the world will ever become a good place, and Anton says, “I believe that love is better than hate.  And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than in destroying a cathedral.”

When he leaves, Patty is heart-broken to lose a friend.  He gives her an heirloom gold ring with these words: “Even if you forget everything else I want you to always remember that you are a person of value, and you have a friend who loved you enough to give you his most valued possession.”

Anton departs, but Patty later hears that he was shot dead by police in New York City while trying to avoid arrest.  When the FBI investigates his escape, they learn of Patty’s role, and she is sent to reform school for actions.  Another powerful story about a strong young woman.

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou.  Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat illustrate this poem by Maya Angelou.  The poem is a celebration of fearlessness in the face of life’s scary things, both real and imagined.

You can link to my earlier posts from my armchair travels across America here:

I am continuing my project of visiting all 50 states through books with a peek at Alaska.  I have actually traveled to Alaska twice, once on a cruise from Whittier to Vancouver, B.C. and once traveling the roads in a rented RV with my husband, brother, and sister-in-law.  I never felt far from true wilderness.  Alaska seemed far wilder than any national park I’ve visited in the Lower 48, like Yellowstone or Glacier, perhaps because of all the wildlife — including large mammals like moose and bears — that we encountered while we were out and about our daily rounds.  I would love to go back.

Moose stops traffic on drive to Kenai Peninsula

Moose stops traffic on drive to Kenai Peninsula

Grizzly Mom and cubs -- no way you could win this race

Grizzly Mom and cubs — no way you could win this race

I solicited recommendations for books that captured the spirit of Alaska from a reference librarian at the Anchorage Public Libraries.  Here are the titles he suggested:

  • for nonfiction:  Coming Into the Country by John McPhee and Aunt Phil’s Trunk, vol. 1 by Phyllis Downing Carles
  • for adult fiction:  The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley
  • for juvenile fiction:  The Trap by John Smelcer
  • for photography:  Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond by Michael Melford
  • for Native art: Raven Travelling, Two Centuries of Haida Art


Vintage postcard of Alaska

Vintage postcard of Alaska

Postcard from Alaska

Postcard from Alaska


Map of Alaska

Map of Alaska

Here are the books I actually read in my armchair travels to Alaska:

Travels in Alaska by John Muir.  This book recounts three of Muir’s trips to Alaska, his first in 1879, his second in 1880, and his third trip a decade later in 1890.  He says:  “To the lover of pure wilderness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”  The book was written by Muir from his travel notes and sketches.  It is filled with poetic descriptions of the land and the people of Alaska’s Inside Passage to Glacier Bay.  I was reminded how back in the days before the ubiquitous camera, people relied on the written word to describe the world around them and their experiences.  Muir was a powerfully descriptive writer.  Here is one of his passages about Dirt Glacier:

“I greatly enjoyed my walk up this majestic ice-river, charmed by the pale-blue, ineffably fine light in the crevasses, moulins, and wells, and the innumerable azure pools in basins of azure ice, and the network of surface streams, large and small, gliding, swirling with wonderful grace of motion in their frictionless channels, calling forth devout admiration at almost every step and filling the mind with a sense of Nature’s endless beauty and power.  Looking ahead from the middle of the glacier, you see the broad white flood, though apparently rigid as iron, sweeping in graceful curves between its high mountain-like walls, small glaciers hanging in the hollows on either side, and snow in every form above them, and the great down-plunging granite buttresses and headlands of the walls marvelous in bold massive sculpture . . .”

He captures the sounds as well:

“Hundreds of small rills and good-sized streams were falling into the lake from the [Stikeen] glacier, singing in low tones, some of them pouring in sheer falls over blue cliffs from narrow ice-valleys, some spouting from pipelike channels in the solid front of the glacier, others gurgling, out of arched openings at the base.  All these water-streams were riding on the parent ice-stream, their voices joined in one grand anthem telling the wonders of their near and far-off fountains.”

Muir’s writing captures the exuberance he felt in the sublime natural landscapes.  “Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice.  And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes . . .”

Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880.  While Muir was off exploring glaciers in southeastern Alaska, Libby Beaman was living with her husband, a government agent supervising the taking of seal pelts on the remote St. Paul Island in the Pribolofs north of the Aleutian archipelago.  She was the first non-native American woman to live there, and she accompanied her husband against the wishes of his immediate supervisor and most of her friends and family.  America had purchased the Alaskan territory in 1867 for $7.2 million.  Beaman calculated that the purchase price was more than recouped in a few years of selling seal pelts.  But her husband found the business of taking fur beyond distasteful, and in addition to his unhappiness, Beaman had to deal with his jealousy and an extremely cold, hard winter which bound them to their quarters for seven weeks.  She survived that malnourished, suffering from scurvy, but undaunted.

“We find that the winter’s dark and cold are the facts that dominate all life up here.  Winter is the event for which everyone spends the other days of the year in preparation.”

Coming Into the Country by John McPhee.  McPhee published these essays in 1976, not quite 20 years after Alaska became a state in 1958.  In the Statehood Act, the national government promised to transfer to state ownership about a quarter of the land, and over the next 20 years, the fate of the land was debated by groups with conflicting interests:  environmentalists and conservationists, oil companies, Natives, and others.  In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlements Act awarded about 1/10th of the land and $1 billion to 12 native corporations.  McPhee wrote about his impressions of the people, the land of  the Brooks Range and the Yukon,  Juneau, the debate about where to locate the state capitol and more.  He said, “The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large — an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state.”  There were about 400,000 people in Alaska in 1976.  Current population is still less than 750,000.  McPhee writes about how “civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land,” and how most residents cannot afford the float plane rental to explore or travel in all this wilderness.

McPhee does travel into remote areas.  He describes a day on the river in the Brooks Range:  “All day, while the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, the light is of the rich kind that in more southern places comes at evening, heightening walls and shadowing eaves, bringing out of things the beauty of relief.”  Of the tundra he says, “Possibly there is nothing as invitingly deceptive as a tundra-covered hillside.  Distances over tundra, even when it is rising steeply, are like distances over water, seeming to be less than they are, defraying the suggestion of effort.  The tundra surface, though, consists of many kinds of plants, most of which seem to be stemmed with wire to ensnare the foot. . . .  Tundra is not topography, however, it is a mat of vegetation, and it runs up the sides of prodigious declivities as well as across broad plains.”  He goes on to say, ” . . . the terrain is nonetheless valuable.  There is ice under the tundra, mixed with soil as permafrost, in some places two thousand feet deep.  The tundra vegetation, living and dead, provides insulation that keeps the summer sun from melting the permafrost.  If something pulls away the insulation and melting occurs, the soil will settle and the water may run off.  The earth, in such circumstances, does not restore itself.”

I think it would be fascinating to compare McPhee’s 1970s impressions with the Alaska of today, more than 50 years after statehood.  The conflicting interests of environmentalists and oil companies, wilderness advocates and developers, are still raging after all these years.

Chasing Alaska by C. B. Bernard.  This memoir of Bernard’s move to Alaska is intertwined with journal entries of an ancestor of his, Joe Bernard, who explored the Arctic and other parts of Alaska 100 years earlier.  C. B. Bernard lived in Sitka for two years and he paints a picture of modern life in this Baranof Island town.  It rains on average 230 days a year in Sitka, and he says, “Relentless rainfall gives everything the blurry focus of watercolor on paper.”  And, “Liquid sunshine, they call the rain here, an intentionally optimistic euphemism, but it’s more like a houseguest who won’t leave or  paranoia you can’t shake.  Want to survive Southeast Alaska?  Learn to ignore rain, or embrace insanity.”

The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley.  Cecil Younger, a private investigator in Sitka, is asked by an elderly Tlingit woman to look at the evidence in the police investigation of the murder of her son.  Though one of his workers was convicted of the crime, the mother wants to understand why he was killed.  As Younger starts his case review, he realizes he has stirred a hornets nest and someone has now taken a shot at him.  His investigations take him to Anchorage as well.  Here are some descriptive scenes from the book:

“Sitka is an island town where people feel crowed by the land and spread out on the sea.  This morning to the north and east, the mountains were asserting their presence by showing off the new snow that dusted them down to the two-thousand-foot line.”

“If you live in southeastern Alaska and are used to being stared at by the mountains with your back against the ocean, the country around Anchorage is a reprieve.  The horizons are broad and open.  The mountains slope up from the tidal flat, cupping Anchorage but not crowding it against the shallow waters of Cook Inlet.”

I found this to be a rather run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and I didn’t like it enough to find other of Straley’s books.  But for years I have followed another Alaskan mystery series by Dana Stabenow.  Her protagonist is an Aleut woman who lives in a fictional national park in Alaska.  If you are looking for Alaskan mysteries, I recommend Stabenow’s.

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis.  This is a recounting of a traditional Athabascan tale about two old women who were left to perish by their tribe, which was endangered by the scarcity of food during an extremely cold winter in the region north and east of Fairbanks.  Only such dire straits would have compelled the tribe to abandon the weakest members, but the women felt betrayed and decided to die trying rather than wait numbly for the inevitable.  They seek to make camp in a place that had been safe in the past, and by snaring rabbits and small game, and drawing on long dis-used skills from their pasts, the women not only survive, but put by surplus food and clothes made of rabbit fur in preparation for the next winter.  When their former tribe, still weak and struggling, crosses paths with the women, they share their bounty and regain the respect of the People.

I have read this story several times; once it was a selection for my mother-daughter book group.  I love this tale of subsistence — living off the land — and resilient elder women.

The Trap by John Smelcer.  This is a wilderness survival tale.  Eighty-year-old Albert Least-Weasel is checking his trap lines when he gets caught in one of its steel jaws.  As the story unfolds, Albert calls upon his past experiences and traditional stories to survive in the implacable cold.  His situation is a race against time as temperatures plummet, the supply of fire wood within his reach diminishes, and hungry wolves scent his growing weakness.


Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.  This juvenile novel won the Newbery medal in 1973.  It tells the survival story of Miyax/Julie, a thirteen-year-old who became lost on the tundra after running away from her husband Daniel.  She comes upon a den of wolves — four adults and five puppies, and she strives to be adopted into the wolf family, knowing she would starve without their hunting skills.  Miyax did have some subsistence and survival skills after living in a seal camp for five years with her Eskimo father.  But in the summer’s perpetual day, she did not have stars to navigate by, and she did not know the ways of the tundra birds and animals as she did the coastal ones.  Miyax’s father Kapugen told her that the birds and animals all had languages and if you listened and watched them you could learn about their enemies, where their food lay, and when big storms were coming.  By mimicking the wolves’ gestures, Miyax is accepted by the alpha wolf, but once the pups are grown, they leave the den, and Miyax/Julie resumes her walk to Point Hope.  This is a poignant story about the difficulties of straddling two cultures.  Miyax/Julie ultimately wishes to live the Eskimo way, but the law says she must go to school, and the pressures to adapt to modern culture have compromised even her strong father.  The book concludes with the words, “the hour of the wolf and the Eskimo is over.”


Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joose and illustrated by Barbara Lavallee.  In this picture book for young children, an Inuit girl is reassured that her mother will continue to love her no matter what — even if the daughter breaks the ptarmigan eggs, throws water on the lamp, runs away with the wolves, or turned into a musk ox or walrus, etc.  I love that the illustrations include Inuit artifacts and Alaskan animals. In fact, I bought a limited edition print of one of the images from this book because I liked it so much.

My Barbara Lavallee print

My Barbara Lavallee print

Reading about Alaska appeals to my sense of adventure.  So many of the people live there by intention, drawn by Alaska’s diverse landscapes, the challenges of surviving cold and dark, and any number of individual dreams.  These books feed the imaginations of armchair travelers like me.

The next state on my literary journey:  Arizona