Alaska by James Michener

September 22, 2010

Plot summary (from the publisher:) “In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us across Alaska’s fierce terrain, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling technological present, as his characters struggle for survival. The exciting high points of Alaska’s story, from its brutal prehistory, through the nineteenth century and the American acquisition, to its modern status as America’s thriving forty-ninth state, are brought vividly to life in this remarkable novel: the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the discovery of oil and its social and economic consequences; the difficult construction of the Alcan Highway, which made possible the defense of the territory in World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community struggling to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic history of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.”

Liked:

  • Michener does an amazing job weaving the long history of Alaska into a coherent, cohesive story. There were a few abrupt transitions along the way, but for the most part, the story flowed far more smoothly than any tome of this length could reasonably be expected to!
  • The part about the Alaska gold rush was my favorite. It was very engrossing, and also quite sad to learn of how many people perished in what was then still a very rugged and remote place, far away from loved ones and the comfort of home.
  • I really enjoyed reading about historical figures such as Vitus Bering, Alexander Baranov, Sheldon Jackson, and Capt. Michael Healy, among others. Too bad I didn’t know enough history to be able to fully identify “real” people from Michener’s own characters!
  • I liked how Tom Venn, Missy Peckham, and Matt Murphy were in the gold rush chapters and the salmon chapters as well. I thought they were great characters, and I liked being able to spend more time with them. I also loved how Tom and Missy remained friends their whole lives, even when they found themselves on opposite sides of the Jones Act. And Tom visiting Missy’s body, kissing her forehead, and deciding to pay for her burial in Juneau was a profoundly emotional scene.
  • The part about schoolteacher Kendra Scott was interesting. As a teacher in a past life, I would definitely have been intrigued by the prospect of an adventure in Desolation at that high salary, so I could readily understand where she was coming from.

Disliked:

  • I couldn’t stand to read about the sea otter hunts and how brutally the animals were murdered for their prized pelts. I was further outraged at the descriptions of how a few particularly brutal men enjoyed hunting mother otters and their babies. And to learn that probably 80% of the killed animals simply sank to the bottom of the Bering Sea because of inept hunters? That was positively devastating.
  • Michener occasionally took his sweet time to introduce characters, giving far more detailed backstories than were strictly necessary. This led to a few boring spots along the way.
  • Michener also took his sweet time to set up various scenes in the book. It got to the point where I could guess what was going to happen 20 pages before Michener got around to actually concluding the action.
  • The Flossie Flatch animal whisperer thing was kind of ridiculous. Befriending a grizzly bear and a giant moose? Really?
  • The last quarter of the book was kinda boring, especially the parts about the Minnesota transplants in Matanuska, World War II, and the fight for statehood. It was kind of a battle to keep going to the end.

Rating:

Overall, I Alaska by James Michener was a very good read despite its daunting length. There were definitely a few boring spots that might cause even the most persistent reader to put the book aside for a while, but the work as a whole is worth the time. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

3 Responses to “Alaska by James Michener”

  1. I really want to read Michener at some point. No idea where I would start though!

  2. I’ve only read Hawaii and Alaska. Both are great, but I’d give Hawaii a slight edge. It’s a loooong book, though, and takes some perseverance to get through the beginning, where Michener describes how the islands formed by means of volcanic activity…Zzzzzzzz!

  3. I get you Julie, I have a background in geography so the first chapter was quite tolerable. I’m on the last but one chapter- “the railbelt”.
    This is the second James Michener book I’m reading, the first being “The Drifters”.
    My most sincere wish is to find other readers of Alaska- just to gush over, it’s a great book!

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