5 Great Books Set in Alaska That We Love

5 Great Books Set in Alaska That We Love

Friday, 18 September, 2020

Since becoming a state in 1959, Alaska’s brutal beauty and wide-open opportunity have attracted pioneering men and women with an adventurous streak. It’s home to gold, oil, puffins, seals, moose, and bears. So many bears!

The pristine wilderness and long history — native peoples were hunting and fishing there way back in 10,000 BCE — are a rich setting for stories of bravery, survival, hope, and heartbreak.

Here are six books set in Alaska that took us there on the page: a vivid memoir, two novels in which snow plays a starring role, a coming-of-age story set in the world of commercial fishing, and two books that showcase Alaskan cuisine.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Alaska: Fresh-Caught Salmon, Cake Mix, and So Many Bears.


The Alaskan Laundry - Brendan Jones

The Alaskan Laundry
> Brendan Jones

It’s a long way from the Italian neighborhood streets of Philadelphia to a fishing boat in the icy waters of the Bering Sea. And that’s just the way Tara Marconi wants it.

She’s adrift in her formerly secure life: Her mother has died, and she’s at odds with her father. The physical strength and discipline she’s built up at the boxing gym can’t help her weather her emotional storms. So she takes off for ‘the Rock,’ a remote island in Alaska, leaving a broken-hearted boyfriend and angry father in her wake.

Her new home is entirely foreign, a land of staggering beauty, people more than happy to live on the fringes of society, and the pervasive smell of dead fish. More determined than skilled at first, Tara works her way up: from the drudgery of being a hatchery assistant — constantly cold, constantly wet, constantly moving — to a respected position on a crabbing boat. And she’s able, for a while, to stave off her feelings with the uncomplicated exhaustion of her work. But eventually, as it’s wont to do, her past demands attention — and that’s when her experience in Alaska gets really interesting. {more}

Maybe people who made it in Alaska were just built of tougher stuff. Some Nordic ancestry better suited to the cold and wet and scream of machinery. Philly hadn’t prepared her for this… At break, her ears, despite being covered in fleece, throbbed. Her feet felt like concrete blocks. She filled a Styrofoam cup with steaming coffee and stood by the humming machine to absorb what scant warmth she could. It was hopeless. She had never taken a knee in the ring, but another six hours in that freezer wasn’t physically possible. — Brendan Jones

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska - Heather Lende

Ninety miles north of Juneau, Alaska, is the tiny town of Haines. You don’t drive to Haines; it’s boat or plane, only. It’s devastatingly beautiful. And for 30 years, writer Heather Lende has called it home. This is her love letter to the landscape and the people in her town.

A few things to know about Haines: It’s accessible only when the weather is amenable to water and air travel. There’s no traffic light, nor mail delivery. And because it’s in Alaska, a wilderness of everyday danger, people can — and do — disappear without a trace on a disturbingly regular basis.

As our guide, Lende introduces us to the characters of Haines, present and past, and we learn their stories. It’s all ordinary and unforgettable, impactful stuff — the good and bad and tough and transcendent business of living life in one of the most remote areas in the States. {more}

Our senior member is Maisie Jones, a widow who has an English accent. She always dresses up and sometimes wears a hat to church. When I had knee surgery, Maisie took the opportunity to get me acquainted with opera. She lent me videos of Carmen and La Bohème and them came over and watched them with me, just to make sure I understood the story lines. — Heather Lende

The Raven’s Gift - Don Rearden

The Raven's Gift
> Don Rearden

John and his wife Anna are enthusiastic teachers, and they’ve just signed on for a grand adventure. They’re heading to a remote Yup’ik village in southwestern Alaska for new jobs and new lives.

But this adventure takes a dark turn that neither of them could have anticipated. An epidemic decimates their village, and they’re forced to quickly learn painful lessons about Alaskan history and its deadly climate.

Author Don Rearden grew up on the tundra and rivers of Alaska, and a real-life epidemic in the late 1800s inspired this story. His prose, like the landscape it describes, is painfully beautiful — and he deftly blends elements of adventure, dystopian lit, suspense, and magical realism.

This is a bracing look at contemporary subsistence culture and the threat of epidemic in a climate where the weather is both an inciting incident and a character in this hero’s journey. {more}

John bent down and pressed his hand into the tundra moss. The stuff fascinated him. Up close, he could see countless species of intricate sponge-like plants all connected to each other: lichens and moss and grass, roots, berries, mushrooms, flowers of all colors, all in the space of his hand. He pressed his fingers into the cool wet sponge and held it there for a moment. The ground felt alive. — Don Rearden

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child
> Eowyn Ivey

Alaska, 1920 is not a welcoming place. It’s brutally cold and bleak. Beautiful, yes, but challenging and dangerous. But that might make it exactly the right place for Jack and Mabel to strike out for a new life.

Their marriage is crumbling under the strain of despair. Unable to have the child they crave, heartsick, and breaking under the weight of their Pennsylvania farm, they head to a homestead in Alaska, ready for a new life. In a rare moment of playfulness, they build a child of snow in their yard during the season’s first snowfall. The next morning, the snow child is gone. But they catch a fleeting glimpse of a little girl moving amongst the trees.

With a red fox always at her side, the child appears and disappears, beguiling Mabel and Jack, who come to love her as their own daughter. This story was inspired by a Russian folk tale and a touch of magic shimmers over the narrative, as the story of the snow child — otherworldy, elusive — plays out against the perils of survival in Alaska. {more}

As the glow of the cabin windows turned to flickers through the trees and then to black, her eyes adjusted and the starlight alone on the pure white snow was enough to light her way. The cold scorched her cheeks and her lungs, but she was warm in her fox hat and wool. An owl swooped through the spruce boughs, a slow-flying shadow, but she was not frightened. She felt old and strong, like the mountains and the river. She would find her way home. — Eowyn Ivey

The Whale and the Cupcake - Julia O’Malley

The Whale and the Cupcake
> Julia O'Malley

Fresh-picked salmonberries and spam sushi. River-to-table salmon fillets and box cakes gussied up with rum. Vietnamese Pho and muktuk and eider duck and pilot bread. The foods eaten every day by Alaskans are a delicious dichotomy of fresh-from-the-land and shelf-stable.

By the time you’ve finished reading this collection of essays, you’ll feel like you’ve gone on a road trip to Alaska’s cities and villages, meeting quirky, smart, interesting people and eating a whole bunch of really good stuff along the way. The interviews, personal stories, and photos of home cooks, restaurateurs, grocery store workers, and farmers clearly illustrate how food matters to Alaskans in a fundamental way. Most of the year is spent preparing — mentally and physically — for the scarcity of winter.

James Beard Award-winning journalist Julia O’Malley is a third-generation Alaskan, and her story about subsistence whale hunting in the Siberian Yup’ik village of Gambell was included in The Best American Food Writing 2018. She writes with obvious affection and restraint about the food culture of the 49th state. Fair warning: It will give you an appetite for king crab that tastes of the Bering Sea and homesickness for a place you’ve never been. {more}

Sure, Californians might love the avocado they picked from a backyard tree the way Texans love their barbecue or New Yorkers celebrate apple cider in the fall, but that love cannot compare to Alaskan food sacraments like picking blueberries from a mountainside, carrying a bowl of moose broth to a family member stuck in the Alaska Native Hospital, or having a whole king eider sea duck in the freezer. — Julia O’Malley

Top image courtesy of Deon van Zyl/Unsplash.

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