When one thinks of Alaska, words that come to mind may include wilderness, ice, and mountains, among others. In effect, many people picture a sparsely populated region with rugged terrain and brutal conditions for anyone who finds themselves left out in the cold. Alaska, of course, was the 49th state to join the Union. Before officially becoming a state, it also served—alongside the Yukon territory—as a destination for eager gold miners during the gold rush in the early part of the twentieth century. Alaska is home to a significant number of native Alaskans or American Indians. What about the literary history of Alaska? In our effort to detail some of the top books from each state, we want to take a look at a couple of titles from Alaska.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
As a Newbery Award winning title, it isn’t difficult to figure out why this is one of the books on our list of top titles from Alaska. Indeed, Craighead George won the Newbery Medal in 1973 for this young adult novel about an Eskimo girl who has endured a difficult life and ends up stranded on the Alaskan tundra. She stumbled upon a pack of wolves with whom she is able to communicate. She relies upon this communication and her own quick thinking to survive. In this passage, George describes the consistency of an Alaskan winter and what was experienced in it:
“But winters always returned. Blizzards came and the temperatures dropped to thirty and forty below zero, and those who stayed at hunting camp spoke only in Eskimo and did only Eskimo things. They scraped hides, mended boots, made boats, and carved walrus tusks. In the evenings, Kapugen sang and danced with the old men, and all of their songs and dances were about the sea and the land and the creatures that dwelled there.”
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In this book, Jon Krakauer describes the trek of Christopher McCandless (who assumed the name of "Alexander Supertramp"), a young man who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness—among other places—following his graduation from college. Krakauer set out to learn more about McCandless’ path after McCandless was found dead. Indeed, McCandless’ body was found in an abandoned bus after surviving for over 100 days in the wild. McCandless’ sought to survive without creature comforts and material possessions. He lived off of edible plants and whatever he could forage. Krakauer posits that McCandless was seeking some form of enlightenment and was likely influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau; that he went into the wild to find himself.
The book is widely acclaimed by critics; however, some also maintain that much of Krakauer’s theories and descriptions are flimsy. Many, including Krakauer after this book’s publication, have offered differing scenarios and hypotheses for how McCandless eventually died. Whether or not you agree with all of Krakauer’s statements or his renderings of McCandless’ tale, it’s difficult to argue with his delivery. The way in which he paints the story is striking. Early on, we’re treated to this passage, including a quote about the Alaskan terrain and living conditions from Jim Gallien, the man who drove Alex into the wild.
“’People from the Outside,” reports Gallien in a slow, sonorous drawl, “they’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush—well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be. The rivers are big and fast. The mosquitos eat you alive. Most places, there aren’t a lot of animals to hunt. Livin’ in the bush isn’t no picnic.”’
This book was adapted into a well-known movie in 2007, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as McCandless.
What are your favorite books with an Alaskan setting? Share them with us in the comments below.
Sources: Craighead George, Jean. Julie of the Wolves. Harper & Row, 1972, p. 81.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York, Anchor Books, 1997, pp. 4-5.