ALASKA; By James Michener; Random House; $22.50; 1,136 pages.
And " . . . he could hear the laughter, the chuckling of the wind coming over a hill, the exhilaration of a whale breaching after a long submarine chase, the gaiety of a young fox chasing birds aimlessly, the wonderful, hallowed sound of a universe that does not care whether a man finds refuge or not so long as he enjoys the irreverent pleasure of the search."In this lucid way does Michener, through one of his earliest characters, define the scope and reach of "Alaska," his newest and most ambitious study. I say "study" rather than novel because, in patented Michener style, "Alaska" reads more like a history of the United States' largest member than it does an epic novel. There's more subject than predicate, if you will.
But that's not to say that the subject is not a fascinating one. For nearly 1,200 pages, a size befitting of its topic, "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.
In true Michener form, "Alaska" covers a time span of about a billion years. Using an effective blend of fact and fiction, Michener brings the subject from its fledgling days as a body of land all the way forward to existing legal and moral ramifications of Alaska's land distribution.
The social implications of continental drift are a pet subject of the author's, but even the most cynical reader must admit to the credibility of the perception that our cultures are a product of their terrains. With Alaska being among the newest and most volatile of the planet's topographies, it is even more credible that this novel should feature the terrain as a major player.
The first flesh-and-blood players to appear in "Alaska" come in the form of mastodons and woolly mammoths who migrated freely from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge to live on Alaska's lush arctic plains. These impressive beasts are followed by tenacious humans from Siberia with which Michener quickly establishes a native population in the new land.
Michener reveals a great respect and compassion for the Alaska native very early in this novel and continues to wave their flag at every opportunity throughout. From the early Russian traders' abuse of the natives and near genocide of some segments of their population, to the present-day social and judicial inequities suffered by them.
The inept colonization of Alaska by Czarist Russia is well provided for here. Michener chronicles the Russian occupation and the scant attention paid the new territory and its administrators by the impossibly far-off central government in St. Petersburg.
The Russian excesses of native persecution and the near extinction of the fur seal is balanced by the author with his relative successes of establishing "civilized" footholds in this raw land at Kodiak, Sitka, and other lesser outposts.
American involvement in the unfolding story of the Great Land begins with the Boston whalers in the far north during the Russian years. When the territory is handed over to the U.S. government just after the Civil War, the novel begins anew.
Michener makes much of the fact that Alaska failed for decades to attain even territorial status under its new owners and clearly defines the chaotic state of affairs of such a vast property and diverse people living virtually under no law or government.
The characters that Michener creates are bigger than life and one-dimensional at the same time. Michener's human studies are void of passion but full of intent and industry. They tend toward spawning ingeniously intertwined clans without actually making love; children grow up without being reared, and they die nobly without pain or suffering.
Whether crafted or by coincidence, Michener has verified the long struggle Alaska has had with garnering control over itself and its land, and demonstrates mightily to those not concerned that this battle still rages on today.
Avid Michener fans will find nothing surprising in "Alaska." It is colorful, informative, and historically accurate. Although he at times attempts to wedge in sub-plots that later fizzle, overall it is a good long story well-connected with somewhat contrived but believable family associations.
Michener critics will also find nothing refreshing in "Alaska." It is a boiler-plated Michener near-plot at its finest. A method of the author's of introducing his readers to areas of the world he finds personally intriguing. Whatever one's opinions are of the Michener style, his subjects are absorbing, and at least with "Alaska," few will escape the allure of the land and people he describes.
*Tom Bodett has written two books and is the "Motel 6" Tom Bodett.