Book Review: “Alaska” by James A. Michener (1988)

“Alaska did not produce supermen, but in its formative periods it was served by men of character and determination, and it is a fortunate land which knows such public servants.” (365)

This has been my third experience with the mind of James A. Michener, and I must continue to emphasize how fascinating a writer I find him to be. I have been working on a novel of my own for several years, and I can barley eek out a couple thousand words in a chapter, with characters who refuse to round themselves out naturally. Michener’s novels are multi-generational biographies of people whom, once you are done reading, you feel like you have known for years. It just so happens to be that the vast majority of these characters are also fictitious  How the author accomplishes this feat is beyond me, for the planning, writing, and rewriting that must go into his works would be more than I could handle in my present life situation. Michener did not begin writing professionally until he was in his 40s, so perhaps I have a few years yet to learn his secrets.

You may have read me say it before, but James Michener is a phenomenal writer whose books captivate. Once again, despite his secularism and occasional harsh language, I have to recommend him to anyone who does not mind either thousand-page books or eventually caring about people who do not actually exist. If you think that reading fiction–even historical fiction–is a waste of time (as my wife does), then Alaska (or Michener in general) is probably the last thing you will want to pick up (or talk about over dinner).

In Alaska, Michener follows many adventure-seekers who attack the northern territories with greed in their eyes and hope in their hearts once gold is discovered in the Yukon, though such materialistic individuals are certainly not the only characters he develops. The Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, and, of course, the native indians all play key roles in this tale marking the birth of our second-to-final state, though some key people stand out in my mind as particularly memorable. The Venns as a whole play a hug role in the development not only of the story but in the fictitious history of the land: Tom who matures and joins the ranks of the fisheries who are seemingly out to destory the land for their own prophet, and Missy who maintains her faithfulness to the land and the people and who is instrumental in seeing that statehood is attained before her own death. The split between the two who, though just a few years separate in age, are like mother and son offers a great deal of contention throughout the book. Perhaps the most striking account from the book that I can recall and that will stick with me for some time is the sinking of The Montreal Queen. Though this passage takes up less than 1% of the book’s total plot, I am shocked by its impact and wonder if this were a true event or, at least, if it were based on something true. How sad it would be to find that a man could show such cowardice in the face of such danger!

I guess I owe something to the doctor friend who first turned me on to James Michener and his creative flare. But in return, I think my doctor friend owes me something as well. About forty hours, I would say, for that’s about as long as it takes me to plug my way through these giant novels. This no complaint, of course, merely an observation. If you are up for the challenge, I heartily recommend Alaska!

©2012 E.T.

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2 Responses to Book Review: “Alaska” by James A. Michener (1988)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Hawaii” by James Michener (1959) | Elliot's Blog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Space” by James Michener (1982) | Elliot's Blog

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