Alaska

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Beginning his narrative “about a billion years ago,” when what would become Alaska was only “a small protuberance” jutting out from the northwest corner of what would become North America, James A. Michener discusses the tectonic and volcanic factors which combined to shape the earth’s northern region. By the fifteenth page, mastodons have come into the region. The author then traces the first migration of humans (Chukchis) into Alaska, as well as the Eskimos, the Athapaskans, and the Aleuts. By the hundredth page, Michener has moved his narrative into the eighteenth century and introduced Vitus Bering, the man through whom the Russians claimed Alaska as their own.

Michener devotes seven hundred-plus pages to the last 260 or so of those “billion years,” drawing his readers through such events as the sale of Alaska by the Russians to the United States, the discovery of the Yukon gold field, the development of the salmon industry, the building of the Alcan Highway, and the discovery of oil. Unfortunately, however, Michener peoples the bulk of his narrative with characters who seem as lifelessly flat as the talking mummy kept by the Aleut shaman Lunasaq. Not only is most of the dialogue stiff and completely expositional (presented solely to convey information), but the characters are also not developed much beyond the adjectives used to portray them--the fictional Innokenti Poznikov is “brash, ill-mannered,” and “arrogant, opinionated, brutal.” Michener insists that his readers dislike Innokenti, and so they do. The subtlety that allows a reader to come to his own conclusions is thus absent. While ALASKA is often informative in a general way, as have been the best of Michener’s works, Michener perfunctorily presents his story and leaves the reader wishing for a more substantial reward for his time.