Alaska represents a place of majesty and mystery to many who’ve never been. People might imagine it as a myriad of mountains and glaciers, all nestled under a blanket of snow as far as one might see. Landscapes might include mixed scenery of white and green, with unexpected beasts, back-country friends and foes around any corner turned. Culture seems mostly of small, dirty towns filled with outlaws and exiles in the era of the Gold Rush, or villages of natives and few white, adventurous and altruistic doctors, isolated by expanses of dangerous land and primitive dogsleds as their only mode of safe transport. These typecasts of Alaskan land and its people depict some versions of true Alaska sufficiently enough, but literary landscaping holds potential for much more.
Authors use the backdrop of a reader’s expectations to build on and contrast against. In readers’ minds, we choose stories based on the framework we expect to find. The splendor of reading, however, comes in the details we didn’t expect.
Setting foot into a story, we undoubtedly come across twists and turns, well-executed narrative shifts in ways that we couldn’t have expected. Discovering Alaska through literature reveals many layered perspectives. By mixing what we know with what we might imagine, readers learn to fill in the author’s blanks. Authors sometimes play up our expectations of Alaska’s landscape with lengthy descriptions of majestic scenery and expected characters. The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present, a compilation of Alaskan writing, reveals various styles of literary landscaping give broad introduction to readers.
Margaret E. Murie gives her readers gentle notice to change their perspective in Two in the Far North. Her biography furnishes the stability of non-fiction with playfulness. Murie advises her readers to prepare for her direction of perspective contrast as she begins her story through eyes of a child,
“A nine-year-old girl can see and hear a lot. Too old to hold the center of any group with the charm of babyhood, too young to be considered a hazard to conversation, sturdy, round-eyed, my dark hair in a Mary Jane bob with a big butterfly bow on top, I could be quietly everywhere at once. I saw and heard. So the Alaska most visit in my memory is the one I saw first, as a nine-year-old, traveling from Seattle to Fairbanks with Mother, in September, on the last trip before ‘freeze-up.’”
Murie’s introduction prepares her readers for a whimsical twist of perspective. A shortening of stature and increase of innocence guides readers’ perspectives gleefully as Margaret explores the wonder of a ship, its staterooms, and the far away shores through the eyes of a child. From this perspective, navigation receives an element of fancifulness. Men’s voices call unfamiliar maritime language, bells clang and the engine sighs in ever-changing pace, an orchestration of sights and sounds. Margaret E. Murie introduces her readers to the Alaskan maritime culture emphasizing its unfamiliarity. Literary landscapes, in this imaginative and playful style, bring unexpected elements into the story that contrasts our predicted backdrop greatly.
Fictitious characters hatched from the backwoods of Alaska manifest personality that is harder to come by in non-fiction accounts. Rex Beach was a novelist who played into the adventurous dreamers of Alaska, such as his excerpt “The Killing” from The Spoilers, which tells the tale of a naïve young woman who has no concept of where she’s landed. A stowaway headed for Nome, Miss Chester needs explanation of the dangers surrounding her. Miss Helen Chester landed in the middle of gunfire, a dispute between two likely-drunk men.
“This is the wrong latitude in which to dispute a lady, but knowin’ this camp from soup to nuts, as I do, I su’gests a male escort… Helen glanced over her shoulder to find that the smiles of the throng were gone and that its eyes were bent on some scene in the street, with an eager interest she had never seen mirrored before… The actions of both men were quick as light, yet to the girl’s taut senses they seemed theatrical and deliberate…she was jerked violently backward, two strong arms crushed her down upon her knees against the wall, and she was smothered in the arms of Roy Glenister. ‘My God! Don’t move! We’re in line!’”
In any approach, the landscape an author creates plays a definitive role in our introduction to place. Classic scenic depictions are the expected introductions of Alaska whose material has a simple elegance that needs no embellishment, while more artistic storytelling renditions can leave readers with awe and wonder of what they never imagined in the pages a book.
Beach, Rex. “The Killing.” The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present. Ed. Wayne Mergler. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1996. Pgs. 70-79. Print.
Murie, Margaret E. “Two in the Far North.” The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present. Ed. Wayne Mergler. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1996. Pgs. 91-106. Print.
Photo Credit: Sculpture Art by Kyle Kirkpatrick, Miniature People Living in Layered Book Landscapes.