The world is strange right now, and in circumstances such as these, sometimes it’s helpful to get lost in another story, at least for a bit. Read a book, and forget about the world for a while. Also, March is Women’s History Month, even though it’s been overshadowed by other news this year. Combine books and Women’s History Month on an Alaska travel blog, and here’s what you get:
Seven non-fiction books about life in the North, some a retelling of Native legends, some survival stories, some memoirs about living and loving in the Alaska wilds. But all are stories that celebrate the lives of women who have carved out a place for themselves in this immense wilderness, and who have thrived not despite the harsh landscapes, but because of them. Get cozy.
Two in the Far North, by Margaret Murie
“Mardy” Murie was the first woman to graduate from what is now the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is considered the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement. Her memoir is about her childhood in Fairbanks, her experiences at the the university, and meeting and marrying Olaus Murie, a noted biologist. She writes lovingly about Alaska and its wilderness, and her depictions of frontier life in the early part of the 20th century are notable for their descriptions as well as their influence on her lifelong advocacy for wilderness.
Ada Blackjack, by Jennifer Niven
Ada Blackjack was the only survivor of an ill-fated attempt to colonize Wrangell Island, in the Siberian Arctic. A 5-member crew, including Ada, an Inuit seamstress from Nome, left in 1921, and two years later only Ada returned. Her experiences—both on the island and back in civilization on her return—comprise an incredible story of survival and resilience, one which had never been told in any depth until the author managed to unearth several unpublished documents and diaries related to the expedition. It’s the story of an unassuming but remarkable woman who survives and emerges a heroine.
Once Upon an Eskimo Time, by Edna Wilder
This is a retelling of a year in the life of Edna Wilder’s mother, a year when she was young and living in the traditional ways of her people. Capturing the oral storytelling traditions of her people, Wilder eloquently employs descriptions of the weather and harsh climates of Alaska’s Norton Sound to illustrate the hardiness of her mother’s spirit. Family values, subsistence living, and the cycles of life form a narrative that captures the now-vanished lifestyle along the Bering Sea.
The Sun is a Compass, by Caroline Van Hemert
This is an adventure story, but it’s one that combines scholarship and personal narrative, as van Hemert and her husband paddle, ski, hike, packraft, canoe and swim their way from Washington to the northwest coast of Alaska—in 4,000-mile indirect route, following rivers, mountain passes and coastlines the whole way. Van Hemert is a biologist studying birds, who felt adrift and directionless while in the lab, but whose sense of purpose was restored after an adventure of such magnitude. She reports on some heart-stopping moments of survival, like the black bear that stalked them through the Brooks Range, but also some incredible moments of grace, like the crossing of a caribou herd just yards from her tent, or miracle of the migration patterns of Arctic birds large and small.
If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, by Heather Lende
Small town Alaska comes vividly to life in Heather’s memoir about life and loss in Haines, a small community in Southeast Alaska. The town is pretty insular, and its residents are quirky and wise and irritating and beautiful, and Heather describes them so lovingly you’ll wish they were your neighbors. This one is less about adventure and more about how life goes in a small Alaska town, but there are edge-of-your-seat survival stories, people coming together in adversity stories, a town divided stories, and stories of reconciliation and hope.
Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis
The Athabascan legend, passed down from mother to daughter through many generations, tells the story of two old women who were once left abandoned by their people during a harsh winter. They had been complainers more than contributors, but once they were on their own, they had to reach inside themselves and remember their skills and strengths in order to survive. The tale is simply told, but the world it creates is memorable for its beauty as well as for its mercilessness. It’s a survival story, but it’s also a story of friendship and forgiveness.
Tisha, by Robert Specht
Anne Hobbs was only nineteen in 1927 when she arrived in the frontier town of Chicken, Alaska, to teach the children of miners and trappers. She bucked the system when she allowed Native students into her classes, and fell in love with a Native man. She learned as much as her students, about the prejudice and hatred people were capable of, but also the great good and love they were also capable of. A beautiful portrait of a life on the frontier in the 20s and 30s, and also a love story not only of a man and woman, but also teacher and students, and human and wilderness. (Note: This is Anne’s story, as told to Robert Specht. It still counts for women’s history month!)
For more great books to read about Alaska, from adventure memoirs to classic fiction, check out this post from the Alaska Life—and there are more suggestions in the comments. Most of these books are available on Kindle, and the Anchorage library system offers digital copies of many of them. Check your local library, or visit the Anchorage Public Library homepage to see what your options are.
Get inspired, and plan your trip—later!
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