In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us through Alaska’s fierce terrain and history, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling present. As his characters struggle for survival, Michener weaves together the exciting high points of Alaska’s story: its brutal origins; the American acquisition; the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the arduous construction of the Alcan Highway, undertaken to defend the territory during World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community fighting to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic saga of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.
Praise for Alaska
“Few will escape the allure of the land and people [Michener] describes. . . . Alaska takes the reader on a journey through one of the bleakest, richest, most foreboding, and highly inviting territories in our Republic, if not the world. . . . The characters that Michener creates are bigger than life.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Always the master of exhaustive historical research, Michener tracks the settling of Alaska [in] vividly detailed scenes and well-developed characters.”—Boston Herald
“Michener is still, sentence for sentence, writing’s fastest attention grabber.”—The New York Times
James Albert Michener is best known for his sweeping multi-generation historical fiction sagas, usually focusing on and titled after a particular geographical region. His first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, which inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Toward the end of his life, he created the Journey Prize, awarded annually for the year's best short story published by an emerging Canadian writer; founded an MFA program now, named the Michener Center for Writers, at the University of Texas at Austin; and made substantial contributions to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, best known for its permanent collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings and a room containing Michener's own typewriter, books, and various memorabilia.
Michener's entry in Who's Who in America says he was born on Feb. 3, 1907. But he said in his 1992 memoirs that the circumstances of his birth remained cloudy and he did not know just when he was born or who his parents were.
Alaska is the most epic book I have ever read. I did read another Michener – Centennial – and it was very epic as well. But Alaska is super-duper EPIC! I cannot imagine how one person could write one book like Alaska much less all the other epics he wrote in his life. Michener is truly incredible.
One of the things that astounds me the most about Michener is that he takes non-fiction information, shares it with the reader in a really engaging way, and then seamlessly integrates it into a rich and colorful fictional narrative. If I told you this book is a history of Alaska from the creation of the Earth until the late 1980s and it is over a thousand pages long (depending on the edition your read), you would probably doze off just hearing the description. But it is not boring at all (at least it wasn’t for me). Fantastic characters, storytelling, historical events, disasters, triumphs, and generations of people and culture overlapping all serve to create a rewarding experience.
I will add a disclaimer to my review – one that has become very common as of late. As this book spans generations of time when ideas of what is appropriate have changed, there are some cultural depictions and language used that would be offensive if not being used to tell a story explaining how things were during these times. If you have any concern that you will not be able to handle these harsh depictions and language – even though they are historically relevant – you may want to proceed with caution if you decide to read this book.
If you are ready to invest a lot of time and energy into America’s largest and maybe most mysterious state, this is the book for you. Even if you never thought you would care all that much about Alaska and you just want to immerse yourself in an epic, historically based story, you cannot go wrong here. When I started it, I didn’t have any specific interest in learning about Alaska, but now I am very glad I did!
This was different than what I usually read but I still enjoyed it. It reads and flows almost like a history textbook but is filled with characters and events that add to the overall narrative. The plot starts out in prehistoric Alaska and gradually moves into the 20th century. What makes it unique is the narrative has characters with dialogue, interaction, and continual transitions into the future. The books follows prehistoric man, the rise of Native American/indigenous peoples, exploration of the Russian empire, the English and Americans in Alaska, Alaska entering into US statehood, and much more.
One aspect of the book I thought was neat was the segment dealing with Russian Orthodoxy and Shamanism. It was interesting to read the conflict and the eventual resolution. Also another thing I learned was "The Aleut word for Great Land was Alaxsxaq, and when Europeans reached the Aleutian Islands, their first stopping pointing the this portion of the arctic, and asked the people what name the lands hereabout had, they replied 'Alaxsxaq,' and in the European tongues this became Alaska.", pg. 106
This book had a lot of information and I learned quite a bit. I would recommend it to someone who has interest in Alaska and wishes to learn more. Thanks!
I always feel like I learned something after I have read a Michener novel. That was the case with Alaska. The isolation and vastness of the of the place is inconceivable to my mind. Michener goes a little overboard on some of the details, especially the 20,000 year old details. It takes some dediaction and patience to get through, but it's well worth it.
James Michener is one of the reasons that I ADORE historical fiction as a genre. This is my fifth (5th!!) reading selection by this author and he continues to hold me spellbound. As Michener navigates the origins of the land now known as Alaska and moves us to the 20th century, he creates a bold tale of the men and women that have left their marks on what is often considered a brutal frontier. If I described Michener's Poland as a military history, Alaska is most certainly a social history. Perhaps my most favorite chapters in the book are about the gold rush( both the Yukon and Nome) and the salmon fishing industry( Michener even creates a salmon character) as they are most evident of Alaska's struggle for statehood.
Although this book was written in 1988, it still can be found on many "Alaska" read lists and serves as a great introduction to any reader that is interested in learning more. In addition, the book has a series of maps and a fact and fiction section.
Epic, as a description, is thrown around far too often these days. So often, in fact, that the meaning has been diluted down to where it is used only to describe a long story.
Alaska, by James Michener is not just a long story. Rather, Alaska is an epic in the original sense - a story that is told over the course of epochs, involving generations of characters and genealogies.
The story begins with the forming of the continent of North America and takes the reader through modern times. Along the way, the people who shaped Alaska are introduced and we follow their stories as they form the greater narrative. We meet the Russian and Inuit settlers, the captains of the great whalers, the politicians and gold miners who wanted to claim Alaska as their own. We meet the average people who, in extraodinary circumstances, become heroes and outlaws. We even meet the dogs and salmon who form such an integral part of Alaska's story.
Michener writes with a clear, simple style. He weaves characters together with such deftness that the reader never questions the occasional use deus ex machina or coincidence to further the greater story. Thankfully, Michener is not overly wordy, else his thousand page stories would be double or treble their length. Instead, he is concise and not too verbose, describing places, events, and settings with a few words before entering it into the grand positions.
Any book titled with the name of a place should be valued at how well it either explains or entices the reader into learning more about, or visiting said place. Alaska, judged thusly, earns top marks. Alaska, the place itself, has been transformed in my mind from a cold, mountain place, rarely thought of, to a desired destination - somewhere I would like to travel to, even if only briefly.
Spanning almost 30,000 years, this book is the definition of epic historical fiction. Beginning with the migration of mastodon and saber-toothed tigers from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Land Bridge and continuing forward to the signing of the Alaska Statehood Act that made Alaska the 49th state in 1959, the history of the nations largest state is laid out in surprisingly readable fashion. I now wish there were equally good books on each of the other U.S. states.
I've never read anything by Michener before and was a bit intimidated by how long the book was. But thanks to some good reviews I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did because the story was really good and it read surprisingly fast. Best praise I can give it would be to say that I enjoyed reading and felt like I learned something.
The first five hundred pages of this brick of a book were informative and entertaining enough to get me over the half-way hump, but it quickly became less of a page turner and more of a slog. I think sometimes that updating my progress on Goodreads is more of a motivator to make it through a book than actually reading it... Is that a sign? If your goal is to tell the entire cultural history of a place in a novel - telling it through individual narratives might not be a bad way to do it, especially if you´re trying for 29 weeks on the national bestseller list, but after 1000 pages of the same formula (or 1000 pages of anything) it gets a little stale. I also found it awkward how Michener fit the more didactic facts that are necessary in understanding parts of Alaska´s history into the dialogue of the characters in the narrative. It was painful to read a number of passages where the naive female character has to ask the strong, wise masculine guy "hey Tom, why do the salmon die after they reproduce" and have the wise masculine guy explain very clearly beginning with "well dear - let me tell you how it works scientifically..." Despite these repetetive annoyances I´m glad to have learned a few things about the great icebox that is Alaska and am proud to click the "I´m finished" button on my Goodreads homepage.
James Michener è stato un autore statunitense che ha scritto più di 40 libri, la maggior parte dei quali raccontano le vicissitudini di una determinata area geografica attraverso le vicende delle persone che vi hanno vissuto. In Italia i suoi libri sono stati pubblicati da Bompiani (dal 2016 parte del gruppo editoriale Giunti) ma adesso sono quasi introvabili; fa eccezione La baia ripubblicato nel 2016 da Edizioni e/o. Alaska è il secondo libro di Michener che ho letto e ne ho subito il fascino, al punto da inserire il quarantanovesimo stato degli Usa nella lista dei viaggi che vorrei fare (preciso che si tratta di una lista quasi infinita dove i paesi freddi occupano un posto preminente!) Il protagonista indiscusso è il territorio con la sua storia geologica e antropologica, anche se una parte più rilevante, rispetto a La Baia, è dedicata alle popolazioni indigene che hanno colonizzato questo territorio, ponte tra Asia e America, e hanno contribuito a mantenerne vive le tradizioni.
Russia e Alaska sono separate da pochi chilometri dallo stretto di Bering.
La battaglia per i diritti politici dell’Alaska inizia con i primi russi nel XVIII secolo e raggiunge un primo risultato solo il 7 luglio 1958 quando il presidente Eisenhower firma l'Alaska Statehood Act che rende l'Alaska uno Stato degli USA a tutti gli effetti; i diritti dei nativi vengono riconosciuti solo nel 1971 con i diritti di proprietà e di sfruttamento dei territori del paese ricchi di minerali e petrolio.
Chiesa russa-ortodossa nel villaggio di Tatilik: i russi furono i primi a colonizzare i territori a est della Siberia. (David McNew/Getty Images)
L’Alaska, nella visione di Michener, ha la sua forza nel mix di culture e nella fusione tra le varie etnie (inuit, lapponi, aleutini, tlingit, russi, europei e nordamericani): gli inverni durissimi (con temperature anche di 50 gradi sotto zero) che durano sei mesi e la mancanza di luce per almeno tre possono essere superati solo se le comunità rimangono unite e solidali. Non mancano certo gli stessi problemi che le popolazioni indigene sperimentano in tutti gli States: opportunità differenti di accesso all’istruzione, alcolismo ed elevato tasso di suicidi ostacolano il pieno sviluppo della regione attraendo opportunisti e avventurieri che si precipitano in Alaska da tutto il mondo per sfruttarne le ricchezze.
Totem tradizionale (foto di Francesco Mismirigo)
La caratterizzazione dei personaggi è la nota dolente perché Michener tende a proporre uomini e donne che si suddividono schematicamente in buoni e cattivi, fortunati e sfortunati, eccezionali e mediocri. Se il vostro interesse come lettori si concentra sullo sviluppo dei protagonisti, allora forse rimarrete delusi; se invece (ed è il mio caso) siete soprattutto dei viaggiatori curiosi, allora rimarrete colpiti dalla capacità di questo autore di spiegare le strette connessioni tra caratteristiche di un territorio e sviluppo antropico, tra i grandi fatti storici e le loro ripercussioni sulla vita quotidiana delle persone comuni.
A novel almost as big as the state! I learned so much from this book, so many things I never realized had happened. Guess they didn't teach us anything in history class about Alaska. I thoroughly enjoyed the use of family through several generations. In this day, Michener's use of strong women and getting over cultural groups intermarrying is a huge plus. I really liked the South Dakotan that was of Scot-English- + about 10 other nationalities talking about half breeds??? Get a grip! Michener boiled it down to it's all about who you are and what you believe. And that is all that matters.
I remember reading this as a kid and dreaming of travelling up near Klondike and beyond the Arctic Circle. I don't know if it was the rugged lifestyle or just the pseudo-romantic text of Michener that created this feeling but in any case, it never went beyond idle daydreaming since I still haven't been there nearly 40 years later. I do recall being enthralled with the story and enjoying the narrative very much though.
Page 141: Thus the great expedition proposed by Vitus Bering staggered to an inconclusive ending. No officer had set foot on Alaska proper; the scientific excursions had been aborted; no useful charting was done; and fifteen men had already been lost. The adventure which Bering had said could be completed for ten thousand rubles would ultimately consume the two million predicted by the accountants, and all that would have been proved which was not already known was that Alaska existed and Terra da Gama did not.
Page 170: Before Cook, a British warship could leave England with four hundred sailors and expect one hundred and eighty to be dead by the time the voyage was over, and sometimes the toll reached the appealing figure of two hundred and eighty. Cook, unwilling to captain a ship that was little more than a floating coffin, decided in his quiet, efficient way, to change this, and he did so by instituting a few sensible rules, as he explained to his crew at the beginning of their memorable third voyage: 'We have found that scurvy can be controlled if you will keep your quarters clean. If you wear clean dry clothes whenever you can. If you follow our rule of one watch on, two off so that you get plenty of rest. And if you will each day consume your portion of wort and rob.'
Page 178: After Pym, with no knowledge or charts to guide him, sailed his Evening Star north from Lapak, he entered a world into no other American had ventured or would soon do so.
Page 180: In the days that followed, the Americans learned that these men lived a short distance to the north in a village of thirteen subterranean huts containing fifty-seven people, and to the vast relief of the whalers, they found that the villagers were peacefully inclined. They were Eskimos, lineal descendants of those adventurers who had followed Oogruk from Asia fourteen years earlier. Six hundred and sixty generations separated them from Oogruk, and in the course of time they had acquired the skills which enabled them to survive and even prosper north of the Arctic Circle, which lay nearly three hundred miles to the south.
Page 214: In that memorable year 1789, when France launched the revolution which would bring its people freedom from excessive tyranny, and the former American Colonies ratified their revolution by initiating a new form of government, under a remarkable constitution ensuring freedom, a group of vicious Russian fur traders committed a great atrocity against the Aleuts on Lapak Island.
Page 813: One day she had guided him toward the shore of the Knik River, and she told Flossie: "I think she wants us to go see the George Lakes," and with only this shadowy suggestion the old Irishman organized an expedition to one of the treasures of Alaska.
"Way up there a closed-in valley. It ought to flow directly into the Knik, but the wall of the glacier blocks it off, so the backed-up water forms a chain of three beautiful lakes, Upper, Inner and Lower Lake George. And there they stay locked up all through the cold weather, because the frozen glacier serves as a stopper.'
'You can come to Alaska forty times and travel around all sides to those mountains and never see Denali,' and Venn said: 'I know.' But there it was, in all its frozen glory, not only the highest peak of the continent but also the farthest north by a large margin. When you paid your respects to Denali, you were knocking on the door of the Arctic Circle, which lay less than two hundred and fifty miles to the north.
Page 910: In 1969 the United States government began paying serious attention to the problem of how ancient land rights of the Alaskian Natives could be honored and protected, and one honest principle motivated all decisions.
This is a novel...correction, a saga, built from about three novels and four novellas. But it’s not pure fiction. A number of events and characters are historical and a section in the front tells you which are which. Both an education and a real pleasure, if you like Alaska – and of course everybody does – this is probably a must read.
Michener chronicles the history of Alaska: the accretion of land to form it; arrivals of Athabascans, Eskimos, Aleuts, Russians, and Americans; the fur trade; the gold rushes – the Klondike and Nome; the salmon industry; and oil on the North Slope. Weaving in triumph and tragedy at every significant point of history, Michener really makes it feel like a good novel even though you know you are getting a lot more than that.
My reading about Alaska has been almost all non-fiction (John McPhee, Dana Stabenow’s travel articles, a number of memoirs by homesteaders and travelers, and the parts of George Kennan and a biography of Captain Cook that relate to it, etc.). Thought I knew a fair amount about Alaska. Still, Michener gave me a huge amount of new factual information. Remember that “fact and fiction” section at the front? See how far you can get without reading it and if you can tell on your own what’s real and what’s not. I made it as far as meeting Captain Mike Healy, maybe the most interesting character in the book, and had guessed wrong on who or what was real three times. Once more, I felt deeply indebted to Michener and was tempted to turn right around and start reading it all over again.
In early December 2019 I had just met my GR annual book goal. I decided to knock off one of the many *long* books off my TBR list. Being a military brat I happened to have the good fortune to have been born in Hawaii. So the book I had in mind was James Michener’s Hawaii. I had not read any Michener before and didn’t really know what to expect. After plugging away for a little more than 2 weeks I was quite impressed. I made a personal goal for myself to repeat this experience in years to come by digging into other Michener classics at the end of each year.
So this 2nd time around I decided to jump into another epic book about a territory that would eventually become a U.S. state. While Hawaii was to become the 50th state ... this time my plan was to learn about the 49th... which was Alaska. Unlike Hawaii - which I had a personal connection to - I did not have any ties to or history with Alaska. Other than a place I had always wanted to visit - and watching several nature documentaries about it - I didn’t know much. Given my positive experience with Hawaii - I fully expected to conclude the book much more knowledgeable than I was going in.
Alaska did not disappoint.
Following his formula for Hawaii - Michener begins his tale going over the geological origins of the state - going back millions of years. Where Hawaii rose from years of volcanic activity - Alaska was part of the land masses of Asia and eventually North America. It shifted as the continents moved and like Hawaii it has much volcanic activity to thank for its features. One thing I learned early on is that both states are considered part of the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”.
Another big difference is that much of Hawaii’s local flora and animals were brought there by either birds or early settlers. To contrast Alaska was not isolated by thousands of miles of water. Much of the early life that flourished was a result of shifting exposed land from ice ages. This meant that many of those early animals traveled via a land bridge from Asia. It was interesting how Michener built his narrative in this section from the POV of one of the most famous of those early mammals - the wooly mammoth 🦣.
The next section of the book followed early humans that traveled to Alaska - also via the land bridge from Asia. There was much discussion on hardships they faced as well as the many factors that encouraged the early people of Alaska to settle where they did. Scarcity of food was the biggest of those factors. The sections on whaling 🐳were interesting and unlike the whalers featured in Hawaii - that were driven by profit - the early Alaskans hunted for food. They could live off of the whale meat for months for a single kill and used much of the whale to make their lives better. They also talked about the discovery of seals and killing of them for pelts... a precursor of horrors to yet come.
One thing I love about Michener’s style of historical fiction are the many factual locations and landmarks to provide reference points to the reader. Of course, for me - the references alone didn’t mean much - which of course encouraged and motivated me to look up pictures and articles on the locations specified. This was especially true in the Explorers section. Many of these early explorers came from Russia - and specifically far Eastern Russia. I knew little more about these territories than that they are on my RISK board game... namely Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Kamchatka. So the bar was pretty low 😀 I spent several hours looking up more about these very remote, but fascinating locations!
The acquisition of the territory from Russia by the U.S. was interesting. This was shortly after the civil war.. The vote to do so was passed by one vote... and then Congress refused to appropriate the agreed to funds to pay for it. Sounds like our modern day dysfunctional political system. Michener circles back to this plot topic for a bit at the end of the book with a bit of controversy.
Much time was spent on the gold rushes - some 35 years later. About 30% of the book was dedicated to it. The greed and corruption during that time wasn’t too surprising. I didn’t realize the level of lawlessness that existed once the U.S. took possession of the land from Russia. I didn’t expect it to take 50 years to fix this. Again... likely due to faulty government. For so long Washington thought Alaska wouldn’t and couldn’t be expected to govern itself- deferring most policy decisions to Seattle. It also thought the land had no real value and had little interest in it. By the time gold was discovered there was no infrastructure in place to deal with the influx of people and legal disputes that came about. The first of the two gold rushes was actually in Canada (the Klondike) and the second was in Nome, Alaska and quite an unusual find.
The section on the salmon industry was interesting. This had two parallel storylines. One was through another POV of an animal... this time Nerka the sockeyed Salmon. My knowledge of salmon 🍣 was again fairly limited. (Most of it came from The Chemical Brothers “The Salmon Dance” song 😀. So yeah... not much.) I found this 6 year journey pretty cool. Interleaved with Nerka’s story was the story of the early developing salmon industry and subsequent overfarming. All of this stuff sounds pretty plausible- and probably is pretty accurate.
One thing about the salmon section was that it repeated over-and-over a racial slur to describe one of the newly invented automation devices. While I don’t doubt this is what some called it... Michener could have said “it was nicknamed the *blah*”. And then refer to it another way in the text.... rather than repeat the slur every few pages. Although there were several other cringeworthy references scattered throughout the book - Michener is pretty sympathetic and IMO fair about his representations of the native Alaskan peoples. He doesn’t hold back much deserved criticism of the unfair treatment they were subjected to over the centuries... This includes how they were exploited by the early Russian settlers and eventually the Americans. He also didn’t gloss over injustices done to them as Alaska’s resources were taken out from under them without bringing many financial benefits back to the state.
There was a section on the bush pilots and the many dangers of aviation in this part of the world during this time period (1930-40s). I learned why you might want to keep branches on your small plane. Even nowadays with more modern planes and instrumentation there are so many dangers from the weather. This section fed right into some interesting WWII bits. I was unaware of the aid given to Russia during this time. I was also not familiar with the skirmishes with Japan over some Alaskan islands.
The last section of the book covered the arguments for and against statehood and the aftermath. Similar to Hawaii... the more modern the topics... the less interesting I found the stories. Maybe it’s just me, but I found hunting mammoths 🦣 and whales 🐳 more interesting than import/export legislation and corrupt lawyers 😀. It was still good though.
Another comparison to Hawaii was that in that book there were very few real people referenced. The fictional characters were modeled off of actual people (or aspects of multiple historical figures) - and situations were real - but very few names you could look up directly. This was still the case here, but less so. There was a pretty good mix of fictional and non fictional characters. Although it leaned more to the fictional side - I still think he does this to provide generational continuity to the storytelling - he threw in a lot more actual people this time which I liked.
Overall it was quite an enjoyable read and a further motivation for me to continue my newly invented ‘Michener December’ I have started for myself.
For two months the author took me on a journey, soaring over majestic mountains and ice crusted seas. I was immersed in the history of the people and their ways and shown both sides of what happens when cultures clash. Alaska unforgiving and brutal to those who don,t follow her rules but a gem to behold for those who take the chance to know her. I probably read an additional three books of info online just following up on some of the topics the author went over in the book. The closest you can get to Alaska without actually going.
4.5 Stars rounded to 4. Very well done book, that brings to life a place i knew little about. There were a few slow spots to me so could not give it 5 stars, although at 1300 and them some pages I guess that is to be expected. A historical fiction story about Alaska from early Mammoth life, original tribe life, Russians in the seal pelt trade, gold rush, Alaska salmon, WWII, Alaska becoming a state, and then modern day life. There were some other segments, but those were the main ones, all good with many good characters that made the book enjoyable. Michener did a great job connecting characters from segment to segment, with personal ties of characters tracing back and forth. Interesting tid-bits about Alaska were learned, such as there was no law controlled order originally because only STATE citizens could serve on juries, Alaska not a STATE until 1959, so justice was handed down by locals with guns wild west style. Russian quest for seal pelts were a major early part of the Aleutian island history. Getting in and out of Alaska by ship has a narrow window of about 2 months, so the gold rush challenges were alot about getting into Alaska than finding the gold. At 7.2 million dollars Alaska was quite the bargain, thank you Russia.
I picked this book up to read before I embarked on a long-planned week-long cruise to Alaska with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. I have been fascinated with the landscape of the Last Frontier since I was young because it seemed to be the last place on earth that man hadn’t touched. The majestic mountains, the verdant valleys, and the gentle wildlife painted a picture, in my mind, of untouched beauty.
Michener tells stories of how Alaska came to be what it is, including the Yukon gold rush and the salmon trade, and establishes Alaska itself as a character throughout. It is not just stories of characters who happen to live and work in Alaska. It is stories of characters who must interact with Alaska and learn about its beauty and geographic advantage.
I learned so much from this novel and I will be honored to visit its land and its people as a cheechako and hopefully leave as a Sourdough with more knowledge of what Alaska means to its people.
The first two chapters are pretty brutal, but apparently that is Michener. They talk about the geological formation of Alaska and though detailed and informative can be skipped. Once he gets into the third chapter following a pack of mammoths and the life of a salmon things pick up a bit but the book still drags a bit. As Michener gets into the human portion of the novel it gets much more readable.
The book follows interwoven characters and stories (some historical figures and some fictional figures) from the beginning of human life in Alaska. From years of Inuits to the Russians to American statehood. Michener hits on founding of modern Alaska, the gold rush, the salmon industry and many other topics.
This book is an interesting and entertaining read if you have a lot of time to devote to the book. I read it slowly through an entire summer.
You can tell it’s the holiday season, because I finished reading this book a week ago and it’s taken me until now to write my review. And, did I mention it took me about three weeks to finish it? Well, it IS a Michener novel, which means not only is it really, really long, but happily, it’s really, really engaging as well!
When I began Alaska, I tried to recall some history of the state, to predetermine what Michener might include in the book. All I could come up with was gold, oil and cruise ships. That just shows how narrow my knowledge of Alaska is. Which is why I love reading historical fiction in the first place!
At the outset, the author takes us on a physical journey – how the land masses were formed, the mountains, the seas, etc. It’s much like the beginning of Hawaii. Then, about 385,000 years ago, we learn about the land bridge and the animals that made their way from Asia to North America. The story about people (ie, the natives that came over from Asia), occurs about 29,000 years ago with whale hunters that discovered the new land while in pursuit of this large prey. More modern settlements occurred with the Russians, it was at that point that I was totally engrossed in the book – and stayed that way until the very end.
I liked how Michener included things other than specific events in the book. For instance, the building of roads, the invention of the airplane and the impact of oil money had huge consequences for Alaskans. Another interesting section of the book dealt with the state’s role in World War II – specifically the battle over the Aleutians. That’s a subject you don’t find very often in the historical fiction books I’ve read.
All and all, I really enjoyed it. Not quite as much as Hawaii, but probably only because I was more interested with the history behind the islands in the south Pacific than with Alaskan history. But still, it’s well worth the read.
James Michener's Alaska is an exhaustive -- and exhausting -- primer on Alaskan history, filtered through the lens of fiction. As an alternative to reading a stuffy old history book, this Alaska has a lot to offer: colorful characters (some historical, some fictional), dramatic landscapes, momentous occasions, and far-reaching human drama. On the down side, if you're looking for actual historical facts, they're here -- but you have to go looking for them. While Michener does provide notes detailing fictional vs non-fictional elements, it leaves the reader guessing from time to time whether he's presenting an example of what might have happened, or something that actually occurred. In true Michener fashion, the books starts with the geological underpinnings of the area, billions of years ago, and moves forward in time to include mastadons and woolly mammoths before finally reaching the first human settlers. The book is entertaining, jam-packed with facts and figures, and illustrates historic times by focusing on the individuals who lived through them. I would recommend Alaska to anyone interested in gaining an overview of the state's history... although I must be honest and state that the first word that occurred to me when I reached the last page (page 1073!) was "finally!"
The story is good, the history great. The characters fail to achieve depth. I failed to connect with most of the characters, although there were a few exceptions. However, as a read before a family trip to Alaska, this was great. Some of the story centered precisely in the area where we traveled, and Michener serves as a great preparatory teacher for anyone planning to travel in Alaska. It was also fun to see who in our family group could get through the 1000 pages first!
What a tremendous book! Five stars for it and Michener! And five stars for me (LOL!), the plodding reader, for finishing this in five weeks. I've always had to break up books over 600-700 pages and read something in between because my interest flags, but not with this one. I was already in an Alaskan obsession, so this one just snowballed it. More thoughts later when I can get to it.
A couple of quotes I want to keep and access later:
"When one looks at the glorious mountains of Alaska he sees proof of the power of the Pacific Plate as it noses its way north and east, and if today he visits Yakutat, he can observe the plate pushing into Alaska at the steady rate of two inches a year. As we shall see later, this produces large earthquakes in the area, and nearby Mount St. Elias, 18,008 feet, grows taller year by year."
"Because of the profusion of volcanic activity along the Aleutians -- a bubbling cauldron, really -- Alaska holds an honored place, perhaps the preeminent place in the Rim of Fire, that unbroken chain of volcanoes which circles the Pacific Ocean wherever the Pacific Plate comes into violent contact with other plates."
"Nowhere else could the subtle relationships of nature be so intimately observed. Ice high, oceans low. Bridge open, passageway closed. The ponderous mastodon lumbering toward North America, the delicate horse moving toward Asia. Mastodon lurching toward inescapable extinction. The horse galloping to an enlarged life in France and Arabia. Alaska, its extremities girt in ice, served as a way station for all the travelers, regardless of the direction in which they headed. Its broad valleys free of ice and its invigorating climate provided a hospitable resting place. It really was an ice castle, and life within its frozen walls could be pleasant though demanding."
"I was scared," the boy said. "Not in the canyon, You keep to the middle where the water bulges up, you make it. And it's all so swift. All you need there is courage. But in those rapids, there you have to know something. I couldn't have done that."
(This edition has 1124 pages rather than the 868 pages Goodreads lists.)
I listened to this ridiculously long audiobook over several of my longer hiking epics in July and August. It was pleasantly enjoyable. Some threads of the narrative are strung out longer than necessary, especially the final chapters about a teacher who moves to a far corner of the north but otherwise is not that interesting of a character, nor does she do all that much for the plot. There is also a heavy focus on economics that I found tedious at times. The chapters about the arrival of Russians and Europeans can be upsetting in their blunt cruelty. The few drawbacks are more than filled by a large cast of unique characters and details about intriguing historic events. My favorite character is "Missy," the Sourdough matriarch of the Mat-Su Valley. If you need to fill 50+ hours of air space, I highly recommend using an Audible credit on this sweeping "novel" about Alaska, from the wooly Mammoths up to the 1980s.
I love Michener cause I love long, sprawling, epic tales. This may be my favorite only cause Alaska is one messed up place and Michener brings that long, crazy, rough, touch, somewhat psychotic history to life. From it's earliest animal life to its struggle to become a state, every aspect of Alaska is given an in depth analysis by Michener in a at times thrilling tale of several 'families' and their development over centures. Brilliant and historical fiction at its best!
I did it! It was my goal to finish Alaska this summer and life got busy so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to... Quite the feather in my *amateur* hat if I do say so myself. Thanks Michener for keeping me captivated for months! He really put life and emotions into the history of this big beautiful state of ours. I loved the passion behind the people and the true testing of strength and grit and perseverance. I loved the intertwined family lines, seeing grandchildren of previous characters interacting with grandchildren of other previous characters and seeing how the impact of what their ancestors did lasted through the years. The spirit of Alaska was made real and I sincerely hope that I don’t start confusing some of his fictional characters/stories with my knowledge of our historical facts... =)
“I’m not afraid of challenges, but I do appreciate safe havens at the close of the day. My grandmother said the same. She told me once: ‘ I didn’t come here to adventure alone. I came to find a good man and build a solid home.’ Adventure and a safe haven, that’s a good mix.”
James Michener will take you on a historical journey from the beginning of the land formation in Alaska to the days when cruise ships abound. If you plan to visit Alaska, I would read this book for a greater understanding of the area. If you do not plan to visit Alaska, you can take a virtual journey by reading this book.
This is a very long book with little dialog. I could only read 10-20 pages a day. I especially liked the chapter on the gold rush. I also liked that it seemed possible to me that if you were not interested in a particular subject, you might be able to skip the chapter and still have a fairly good sense of what is happening.
I wondered why the first thing in the book were the details about what is true and what is fiction. I wondered why a book would start that way because it seems like that would be at the end. I found out that I liked those facts in the beginning and I referred to those pages throughout my journey reading the book.
Beautifully written account of Alaska and the men and women who lived through the intensely cold long winters, majestic mountains and glaciers, and teeming wildlife. Also, the exploration, settling, and exploitation of it's wealth; gold, oil, salmon, and tourism. Not to mention the numerous native people's whom several countries fought to subdue, slaughter, and obliterate. Would love to see Alaska someday, Michener gives an encompassing view of this beautiful state. Five stars.