Author: James A. Michener
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“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 Americas 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.”
Thoughts: James A. Michener is known for his highly detailed narrative and pages-long expository on the history of a region. When done correctly, a reader is taken on a whirlwind adventure through time, following the growth and development of an area through the eyes of the land and of a select few founding families. When done poorly, the effect is more like a lengthy history textbook. Alas, Alaska falls into the latter category.
What Michener does well can become nauseatingly boring over time without a human factor. Where there is a human factor, the construct of the overall novel is such that the human factor is deliberately interrupted. Each chapter is like an individual novella. There is some attempt to connect the characters through the generations and across the state, but the individual chapters and lack of depth of character development creates an extremely disjointed story.
In addition, there is an undercurrent of dispassion and lack of affection for Alaska that does not exist in some of Michener’s other works. The best example of this would be Hawaii. His love of the South Pacific is palpable on every page. It is not overt, but it is something that permeates all of his descriptions and makes them more vivid. Unfortunately, the descriptions of Alaska are more rote and clinical. The fascination with the flora and fauna is missing, and the reader is left struggling through dry and lengthy descriptions.
At 868 pages, Alaska is simply too long. There are too many native Alaskans, too much land, and too much political infighting. Michener’s choice of creating stand-alone chapters does nothing to help foster understanding or clarity. Readers looking for something similar to the magical Hawaii or even the excellent Chesapeake are guaranteed to be disappointed. The lack of memorable generational families and tedious descriptions make this more of a slog than something to enjoy.