Monday, March 27, 2006

The Great Alaska Novel

The playwright-poet-screenwriter Anne Hanley was Alaska State Writer Laureate, 2002-2004.

Here's her take on the Great Alaska Novel:
Even the verbally mighty James A. Michener got bogged down when he tried to tackle all of Alaska in one novel. Michener was able to dispatch whole island chains, states and even entire countries in one volume, but he ran out of gas in Alaska. I don't know anyone, in state or out of state, who ever made it all the way through Michener's Alaska. (I gave up some place around page 525 when he was still following the spawning salmon on their journey.) Michener's is the only attempt at a comprehensive Great Alaska novel that I can think of.

It certainly is not the Great Alaska Novel, but in terms of its influence, I can't fail to mention Edna Ferber's Ice Palace which was published in 1958. Both the book and the movie based on the book captured the public's imagination.

Actually there aren't many novels about Alaska. But there are a great many memoirs, journals, and biographies. In Alaska, the truth is a much better read than fiction.

There are, however, a number of contemporary Alaskan writers tackling fiction. I think the most successful are almost memoirs. Seth Kantner's novel Ordinary Wolves is a good example. Kantner grew up in a sod house in northwestern Alaska. His parents were educated whites who chose to go back to the land and try to eke out a subsistence life style. They were the kind of folks labeled "hippies" in other places. In Alaska they were called "White Eskimos." The protagonist in Kantner's novel has a similar upbringing. His perspective on the world is what makes the book so unique. Kantner grew up about as close to the land as it is possible for a modern person to get. Native people in the village closest to his home had TV, basketball and snow machines. Kantner had nothing. His novel offers a window on another way of looking at the world.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole's new novel Correcting the Landscape draws on her years of growing up in Alaska through several boom and bust cycles. It tells the story of Gus, who owns and edits a small weekly newspaper in Fairbanks. Gus tries to tell the truth and that means he often gets in the way of exploiters and developers who call themselves pioneers and philanthropists. It's complicated and for my money those writers who recognize that it is complicated and tell the stories they know are the future of the Great Alaska Novel.
Anne Hanley is the first playwright to be named Alaska State Writer Laureate. She lives in Fairbanks, where she is the CEO, staff and maintenance crew of Panache Productions. Anne has an MFA in Film from UCLA and is an associate member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society of Children's Book Writers. She is a founding producer of The Looking Glass Group Theatre in Fairbanks.

Anne Hanley is co-editor of The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North (2005), an anthology of writing from Alaska.

Thanks to Anne for the insights and recommendations.

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Texas Novel, part 2 click here.
For The Great New York (City) Novel, click here.
For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, part1, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.